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Imposter syndrome in the financial sector

By Peter Ryding, – Founder of Vicyourcoach.com and award winning CEO Mentor 

Have you ever felt scared of being found out? Of feeling out of your depth? Of not being good or resilient enough?

Well, if so you are not alone. Through my work coaching senior executives at banks and financial institutions, it’s clear that confidence and resilience is often skin deep. Most suffer from impostor syndrome to a greater or lesser degree.

Coronavirus is impacting all sectors and banking and finance is no exception.

McKinsey suggests financial services leaders face a pivotal moment striving for long term sustainability and acknowledging permanent changes to organisational structures are necessary.

The sector has already faced multiple human resource challenges; technical skills shortages, low spend on training, lack of diversity and often tough and unforgiving cultures. Financial services leaders and employees face enormous challenges and strong leadership and resilience will be key at all levels.

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.

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.

As a coach to top executives, I know that 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 – your Virtual Interactive Coach the unique e-coaching and e-learning platform I founded.

So, why doesn’t external evidence of success always translate to inner confidence? 

What is Impostor syndrome and how does it affect the financial services sector?

‘Impostor syndrome’ is a pattern of behaviour where people doubt their success and accomplishments despite strong evidence to the contrary. They have an internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud.

You may recognise one or more of these indicators…

  • Being a workaholic – working very long hours, not taking time off, struggling to relax.
  • Being a perfectionist – never satisfied, struggling to delegate or micromanaging.
  • Being strong – never asking for help, being too independent
  • Being the expert – needing to know everything yet never knowing enough

Whilst both men and women experience impostor syndrome, 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.

Imposter syndrome negatively impacts peoples’ work and personal lives in many ways. It instils self doubt and low self esteem and it impedes career growth, as it stops people moving outside their comfort zone to take more challenging roles and projects. At a senior level it hampers leadership and management impeding decision making and innovation. Moreover it also affects mental health with overworking and mental burn out creating stress, anxiety and feelings of isolation. This is particularly relevant in the financial services sector now.

So, what can you do to overcome impostor syndrome?

For some impostor feelings are fleeting and for others persistent. Here are  some tips that can help:

  • Knowing 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 stupid or slow or unprepared at times.
  • Accept you will never be perfect and forgive mistakes. Perfection is unattainable and mistakes are how we learn best – so recalibrate yours!
  • 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.

How can the financial and banking sector address impostor syndrome in their organisation?

Employees suffering from Impostor syndrome negatively impacts the success of your whole organisation. So, take positive action to address it – particularly now with a dispersed and often isolated workforce.

  • Build a culture which places emphasis on the employee’s wellbeing both physical and mental.
  • Attribute success fairly; reward teamwork and as well as hard work. The current and post-Covid environment will require a new approach to incentives and performance management.
  • 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.
  • Spot drop offs in performance or signs of regular overwork – emails being sent way before or after normal working hours, an unusual delay in responding or procrastination over decisions.
  • Discuss imposter syndrome. Studies suggest education and coaching help significantly. Build a culture where it’s ok to not always know the answer.
  • Have a strong inclusion agenda.

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.