For new-to-industry broker Elliot Bowyer, being mentored by a Top 100 broker is an amazing opportunity – but at the same time, it’s a little bit daunting. While she has been told by her boss, Deanna Ezzy, that she has all the right credentials and abilities to become successful in the role, she can’t help but question whether she will live up to the expectations she has placed on herself.
“I’ve only just become a mortgage broker with an award-winning company,” she said. “I know what expectations the company has and what I am expecting of myself - but will I be able to handle it?
“I know why I am feeling this way, it is self-doubt and the imposter syndrome kicking in.”
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon, is something that countless female brokers continue to grapple with as they forge their path within a largely male industry. But they are not alone – a recent survey reported on in the Australian Financial Review revealed that two in three workers experienced imposter syndrome during 2020. That figure jumped to 85% for those who started a new role during the pandemic.
Psychologist and author of The Loudest Guest Dr Amy Silver said imposter phenomenon often hits people during times of change.
“It’s summed up by the sense that we have when we feel that our external success doesn’t match our internal view of ourselves,” she said. “Then we feel that there is a gap that somebody else may be able to expose and that we have kind of lucked out by achieving this success in some way rather than it being anything about our ability, knowledge or skill set.”
When we are confronted with change, such as a new process, work from home or new tech, we feel more vulnerable that that gap is likely to be exposed. While most people would identify with this feeling, it’s the behavioural pattern that comes next that can be a problem at work, she added.
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“Because we’re trying to protect ourselves from the perceived exposure that’s going to happen, we run a number of protective behaviours which actually really impede what we can do together,” said Silver. “For example, we don’t ask questions because it might expose that we don’t know something. It may mean that we don’t ask for help, it may be that we don’t tell people we don’t understand something. We may not share our thinking or speak our truth. We may want to defend and attack so that people don’t get too close to understanding that our thinking is flawed. And we may not want to try anything new in case we fail.”
These behaviours then layer a block to the way we communicate – we struggle to be ourselves at work because we are trying so hard to protect ourselves from being exposed as a fraud.
“When we can move into a place where we can be more open about it, we can share that as a common thing and move past it rather than allowing our fear to control our performance,” said Silver.
Being open about imposter syndrome
Being open about imposter syndrome is something that Bowyer’s boss and mentor Deanna Ezzy believes is important.
“I’m honest with others about it, because I hope it will open up the conversation and show them that it’s OK to feel this way too,” she said. “For example, I feel like a bit of an imposter when it comes to being a leader. Leadership is a relatively new experience for me and I’m learning as I go. I try to embrace it now, even when things feel a little overwhelming, or out of my depth.”
She said reminding herself that feeling like an imposter is life’s way of letting her know she is experiencing growing pains and that she will be better off once she comes through the other side, has helped her immensely.
“I have come to realise that we’re all human, and as we learn and grow - which are good things to do - we may occasionally feel this way,” said Ezzy.
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It’s not just women who suffer
While the phenomenon may sound like a common thing among female brokers, both Bowyer and Ezzy know male brokers who experience this too.
Silver said the phenomenon has not been found to be more prevalent among women than men, but that it was in large part driven by our human desire to belong.
“It’s quite normal for us to see, what’s the dominant group here and let me try and align myself to the views and what I am saying externally to that dominant group,” she said. “It could be a hierarchical thing, it could be a skin tone thing, it could be a qualification thing - it could be anything that we use to judge, what is accepted in this space and how do I become that?”
She offers the following advice to those who are suffering from imposter phenomenon at work.
Tips for overcoming imposter phenomenon
“The key thing is about managing that fear that we are going to get exposed,” she said. “The first piece that is important is understanding that we have it and understanding where it shows up and how it interferes with our behavioural choices.
“The more we understand where that is, the greater the chance that we’ve got to see some of the patterns and turn what was previously unconscious into consciousness around where this fear interferes for us.”
Being compassionate with yourself is important, she added.
“This is a human condition – we are designed to block fear and avoid it, that’s what our brain is trying to do,” she said. “We don’t need to feel ashamed about having imposter syndrome. Those feelings are natural and part of who we are.
“But we do need to separate those feelings from what we choose to do. So being able to really see what the fear of exposure does - it wants us to protect, it wants us to hold back, it wants us to blend in – which in the short term may be effective, but, in the long term, will actually prevent us from doing good work.”
Separating the idea that fear wants us to do one thing but that we get to choose what we should and can do can be powerful if the thing we choose to do is aligned with our goals, she said. Then we can evaluate whether the fear is useful or not.
“For example, fear wants me to stay quiet, so I don’t expose what I don’t know, does that help me in my work? No, it doesn’t help me. Is it true that people are going to think less of me if I don’t know? Not these people, not in this situation,” she said. “You have to get into a position where you evaluate the usefulness of what fear is saying because sometimes fear uses a lot of drama or past stories that aren’t true or useful.”
Silver recommends doing safe and small experiments. If you recognise that you have imposter syndrome while being in the presence of a major client, the CEO or the entire company, you may not choose that as the first place to play around with showing this feeling to people. If, however, it’s with a group of people you trust and you feel is a safer space, you could own it and say it out loud – “I feel like I should know this, but I don’t …” Or, “I’m having that feeling that I don’t know enough” or “I’m talking a bit outside my area of expertise.”
“Experimenting happens in a graded way,” said Silver. “Take safe, little risks to chip away at that fear.”
For Ezzy, experiencing imposter syndrome has become a positive signal of growth.
“My favourite quote is ‘everything you truly desire is outside of your comfort zone’,” she said. “So really, if you are experiencing imposter syndrome it may be that you are stepping outside of your comfort zone. In this case, I would think you’re in the right place because what you’re experiencing and learning is helping you grow as a person.”
Bowyer agrees that working through the feeling of self-doubt is all a part of learning.
“I feel a little better that I’m not the only one who experiences this on occasion,” she said. “I guess for me in this particular instance, that stepping outside of my comfort zone and facing my fears head on will help me overcome these feelings of unworthiness. I will use them instead as an opportunity for self-growth.”