Imposter Syndrome in Finance

Mental health has come to the fore as the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened workplace anxiety. What should CFOs do to ensure that their team members remain confident in their own abilities?

Peter Ryding, founder of Vicyourcoach.com and award-winning CEO mentor, discusses the prevalence of imposter syndrome in the financial sector and how it can be tackled.

The impact of COVID-19 will be felt for a long time, materially and psychologically. COVID-19 is not a leveller. It is divisive in who and how it strikes and in its wider impacts.

July has seen a record-breaking spike in unemployment and the sharpest economic downturn in living memory with the IMF predicting global GDP will shrink by nearly 5% this year.

McKinsey foresees a dramatic impact on mental health.  As witnessed after the 2007-08 global financial crash, depression and anxiety escalated coupled with alcohol and drug use. Suicides rose by 13% with an estimated 46,000 lives lost due to unemployment and income stress.

COVID-19, however, has more in its armoury than previous financial crises. Aside from financial concerns, lockdown isolation and profound uncertainty around ‘new normal’ working environments are likely to create significant and far-reaching mental health issues.

For both humane and commercial reasons, business leaders should be alarmed and ready to act. Mental health is highly correlated with productivity. According to The Mental Health Foundation, addressing wellbeing in the workplace increases productivity by as much as 12%. And that’s during ‘normal times’. The immediate hit to productivity now and in the near future is likely to be considerably greater.

Mental health is highly correlated with productivity.

So, now is undoubtedly the time for strong, resilient and compassionate leadership. Clarity of leadership and practical support are both needed over the months and years ahead.

However, in recent discussions with CEOs and CFOs, unsurprisingly, I have seen a huge increase in stress and self-belief and confidence have taken a hit. Not only are they tackling some of the biggest challenges they have ever had to face but also facing their own job security and safety concerns. Finance in particular has been in the eye of the storm, navigating their organisations through the tumult, safeguarding and advising on financial stability and integrity.

Through my work as a coach to CEOs and boards, I know that confidence and resilience are often skin deep. Impostor syndrome is widespread.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise? The most severe cases of imposter syndrome are often observed in sectors which recruit and promote overachievers and demand the highest standards. Finance is a classic example with long hours as standard and a tough competitive culture. To be noticed, employees have to continuously outperform and work even harder than their peers so it’s unsurprising that they often suffer chronic self-doubt. Add COVID pressures into the mix and it’s a recipe for a mental health tsunami.

Even the most outwardly confident and successful executives live in fear of being exposed. Which is why ‘self-confidence’, ‘overcoming self-limiting beliefs’ and ‘resilience’ are some of the most requested skills within VIC, the e-coaching and e-learning platform I founded.

What is impostor syndrome, and how does it affect the financial sector?

Imposter syndrome is a pattern of behaviour where people doubt their success and accomplishments despite strong evidence to the contrary. Impostor syndrome not only affects mental and physical wellbeing, it also negatively impacts performance, productivity and proactivity. It stymies innovation and restrains bold leadership. By sapping self-confidence and self-esteem, it can prevent you from achieving your potential and block the organisation reaching its goals.

People exhibiting traits of imposter syndrome have an internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud. Indicators include being a workaholic, being a perfectionist, never asking for help and needing to know everything yet never knowing enough. These traits are often encouraged and rewarded in the finance.

According to recent research nearly 60% of workers in accountancy, banking and finance have experienced imposter syndrome and whilst both men and women experience it, women seem to suffer more than men. A 2019 report by Access Commercial Finance found two-thirds of women had experienced feeling like a fraud in the previous 12 months and only half of men. Disparities still exist in female representation at senior levels in the financial services sector. Whilst 44% of the workforce are women, they make up only a third of senior management. External validation alleviates imposter feelings and a lack of inclusion, role models and positive support reinforces self-doubt.

So, what can you do to overcome impostor syndrome?

For some, impostor feelings are fleeting, and for others they are persistent. There are practical measures you can take against them. For example:

  • Know it’s common. Studies suggest that simply knowing you are not alone helps.
  • Separate feelings from fact. Just because you feel something doesn’t mean you are. We all feel ‘not quite up to the task’ at times.
  • Accept you will never be perfect and forgive mistakes.
  • Give yourself credit. Recognise your worth and value, internalise positive feedback and don’t fixate on the negative.
  • Attribute success truthfully. Everyone has good and bad luck. Attributing success to luck undermines your abilities and confidence.
  • Identify your ‘rules’, challenge them and rewrite. “I don’t have to be right”, “I don’t always have to know the answer”, “I can ask for help”, “I don’t have to be strong”.
  • Keep a list of your accomplishments and strengths. It’s less easy to discount your success when seen against a backdrop of past successes.

Actions to address impostor syndrome in your organisation

Impostor syndrome negatively impacts the success of your whole organisation. So, take positive action to address it.

  • Develop clear policies to address and support mental health. This is no longer a nice-to-have but an essential. Train managers to spot mental health red flags within their teams.
  • Spot drop offs in performance or signs of regular overwork – emails sent way before or after normal working hours, unusual delays in responding, holidays not being taken or procrastination over decisions.
  • Watch out for team members who are feeling out of their depth. Look for signs of loss of self-confidence and anxiety, for example expressing greater uncertainty, becoming self-deprecating, deflecting praise, attributing success to luck or to the skills of others in the team.
  • Attribute success fairly and rebalance; reward teamwork and as well as hard work. The current and post-Covid environment will require a new approach to incentives and performance management.
  • Discuss imposter syndrome. Studies suggest education helps.
  • Have a strong inclusion agenda. Women and minorities suffer more from impostor syndrome and strong role models and positive support help.

We want to reach out and help businesses, teams and employees during these extraordinary times by offering VIC for free. VIC gives an interactive ‘coach in your pocket’ for all employees with self-coaching tools and thousands of hours of multi-media content to help with self-confidence, stress, resilience and a host of other personal and business skills.

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