Welcome back to HR Coffee Time. It's great to have you here. I'm your host, Fay Wallis, a career and executive coach with a background in HR, and I'm also the creator of the HR Planner. I've made this podcast especially for you to help you have a successful and fulfilling HR or People career without working yourself into the ground.
Today, I'm excited to dive into a topic that hits close to home for many of us. It's a challenge that can sneak up on even the most experienced HR or People professional - imposter syndrome. Joining us for the episode is the fabulous Aoife O'Brien who shares the results of her research into imposter syndrome and talks us through the impact of imposter syndrome at work and how to tackle it head on.
One of the things that really stands out to me about Aoife's work is the fact that her research and advice are helpful not just only for anyone who could be experiencing imposter syndrome themselves, but she also goes one step further and has identified the negative impact imposter syndrome can have throughout the organization you work for.
So she doesn't just give advice on what you can do to tackle imposter syndrome for yourself. She also shares brilliant recommendations to be used by managers and leaders throughout the organization to help make sure that imposter syndrome isn't flaring up throughout the people who work there. Aoife is the founder of Happier at Work, a business with a mission to eliminate toxic working environments for good.
She works with business leaders and employees to focus on workplace culture, cultivating balance and empowering leaders. She has an MSc in Work and Organisational Behaviour, a Diploma in Executive and Life Coaching and a Certificate in Career Coaching. And she also has a two time award runner up podcast, Happier at Work, that has a global audience of nearly 80, 000.
Let's dive in now and hear what Aoife has to say about the impact of imposter syndrome at work and how to tackle it head on. I really hope you're going to enjoy hearing what she has to say. Welcome to the show Aoife, it is just fabulous to have you here.
Thank you so much Fay. We've been talking about this for a while and I'm so delighted that we are finally here recording this episode.
Yes, for anyone listening Aoife and I have got this terrible problem whereby whenever we arrange to have a chat or whenever we have arranged to have a chat about coming on the podcast, we then spend the entire time we have allocated just chatting and getting to know each other and sharing podcasting tips.
So I think we both began to think, oh my goodness, we're never actually going to record the episode.
But all very important points that we had to discuss. This is the thing, Fay, I think, you know, you know, we were talking about such important things that the podcast sort of became an afterthought, let's say.
Absolutely. And for any future guests who come on the show, if it ends up being a much smoother process, or you think, oh wow, Fay's so organized, it's all an illusion. I'm only managing to be that organized now because Aoife, who has been podcasting for much longer than me, has very kindly shared lots of her tips with me.
So, um, I'm sure there are lots of people who are feeling very thankful to Aoife for making me put much better processes in place. But anyway, before I go off on a complete tangent talking about podcasting, I'd better bring us back onto today's topic, which excitingly is imposter syndrome. And I'm really, really looking forward to our chat today because it's such an important topic and it's one that we haven't covered on the show for a while.
I thought it would be good to start off by asking you if you could define what imposter syndrome is, so we're all on the same page with it.
Absolutely, yeah. I think sometimes imposter syndrome is confused with self doubt. So we all have self doubt. We all doubt our abilities from time to time. Even people who you think have everything together from the outside, on the inside they might have doubts about what they're able to do, but imposter syndrome is almost like taking a step beyond that.
So it's people who don't feel like they deserve the success they have. They don't deserve to be where they are and they fear that they're going to be found out. So this is the whole kind of crux of it is this fear about what other people think, what other people are going to say, what other people believe about them and that they're going to be exposed as this fraud.
It's so helpful to have that definition, and I know how passionate you are about this topic because not only have you covered it on your own podcast, which is called Happier at Work, for anyone who'd like to have a listen into that, you've done extensive research into the topic yourself as well, and released a whole report documenting all of your findings.
You've got your own coaching program, which is called Imposter to Empowered, so I think officially you are the one person I've met who knows more about this topic than anyone else, and I would love to ask you, where does this passion and interest in imposter syndrome come from?
Good question. I think because I was that person, or I am that person, I think it's something that, that never goes away.
It, when you reach a certain level and you think you have it sorted, maybe you get to another level and it exposes itself again, essentially. And so I think for me, it's really important to educate people that it is a thing. And since I started talking about it, probably about four and a half years ago now, so many people have just said, thank you for talking about it.
Thank you for making me realize that it's an, it's actually a thing, that it's something that it's not just me, that other people experience this as well. And I've experienced it multiple times in my own career. So at times, it was when, and the first time I heard the term, actually I was in a senior leadership position.
I had just been promoted to be on the, the country leadership team in Ireland. And I was talking to a friend of mine saying about, you know, this is my experience and oh God, I don't know. I was probably using all of the, the trigger words like, uh, mistake and they've made a terrible mistake and they're going to realize, and I'm going to get found out.
And why did they pick me? And it must have been because I was the only option then. You know, they have to go with me. All of these things that we tell ourselves. And I happened to explain this to a friend of mine and she goes, Oh, it sounds like you have imposter syndrome. And I thought, what's imposter syndrome?
It was the very first time I heard that term. And when I first started out in business, I was in a networking group and one lady asked for contribution to a newspaper about your experience of imposter syndrome. I thought I've had experience of imposter syndrome. I'm going to talk about that and share.
And when I was reflecting on that, it made me realize that I had experienced it early in my career as well. Uh, I experienced it when I first started out in business and then reaching new levels of success in business as well. So I just thought the more I talk about this, the more people realize that it's, it's just part of the human condition.
It doesn't have to be debilitating. It doesn't have to be detrimental. The other thing I think worth pointing out, and this happens to me a lot, is that I can be behaving in ways that are imposter like behaviors without realizing that I feel like I'm an imposter. I would just behave in such a way, like dismiss my achievements or not put myself forward for rewards or just do things without even realizing like that I'm sabotaging myself or I'm saying no to myself before I even get to a stage of someone else saying no to me, essentially. So I think it's so important that we talk about these things, that we get them out in the open and understand that most people feel this way, even from the outside, if they look really confident.
There's so much that you said there Aoife, that I could dive into.
I can just imagine everyone listening along right now and nodding with some of the things that you're saying, because it's an experience that so many of us can resonate with. I think it's particularly interesting what you just mentioned at the end there about not doing things because you're afraid of the 'no'.
And I like to think this is something I've really worked on for myself with building up my own confidence and self belief. But as you were saying that, it made me think, oh my goodness, I have been thinking ever since I started HR Coffee Time, how much I would just love it to get a mention in the CIPD magazine that comes out once a month, People Management Magazine.
I get the magazine because I'm a member of the CIPD and I used to check it every single month thinking, maybe they're going to have mentioned HR Coffee Time this month and found it. And it took me a while before I realized that probably what happens is the podcasters, or their publicists, if they're a podcast from a much bigger organization, must be getting in touch with the magazine and saying, would you like to
profile, the podcast. So I have been saying to myself for two years, Oh yes, I'll get in touch with them and just ask if they'd be interested in showing or recommending HR Coffee Time to their readers. And do you know what? I have stopped, I just haven't done it. And I wonder if it is a little bit of the fear of them saying no, which just seems bonkers, actually. So, uh, perhaps this will be the impetus Aoife, for me finally to take action and actually do something about it, rather than wait another two years.
That's your homework for today, Fay. What I was, well, there's a few things I'd love to kind of pick up on what you've just said there.
And the first of all, it's this idea that procrastination is very highly linked with imposter syndrome. So if we have imposter syndrome, we tend to procrastinate and procrastinate and procrastinate. And if we procrastinate long enough and we do a really bad job on something, then it's because we're bad inherently and we're not good enough to be where we are, to do what we're doing, whatever it might be.
But if it becomes a success, it means that, Oh, well, we just got lucky this time. And isn't it so lucky that people haven't figured us out. But the other thing I wanted to say, Fay, and I suffer from this a lot. You're kind of sitting around waiting to get noticed. And I think as women, we do this a lot.
You're kind of waiting for someone to notice your work, and maybe they haven't made the connection, or maybe they think that it's not what you want. So they haven't reached out. But I think it's a, you know, and like I say, this happens to me all the time. I'm like, why wasn't I considered for that? I'm like, did I ask to be considered for that?
So it's thinking, like. If you want something, you need to let people know that that's what you want because they're not mind readers and they're not going to necessarily know that that's what your ultimate goal is.
Absolutely. And it's advice I give so often to my own coaching clients. It's funny how sometimes it's so much harder to take our own advice, but I, I.
I tell you what, I'm going to do the homework. You've got me all fired up about it now. And for anyone listening, I would really love to encourage you. If Aoife's words have struck a chord with you, what one thing could you ask for that you've been holding yourself back from because you're worried about what the response can be?
How can you be brave and put yourself forward and make that request? And hopefully that's going to inspire some people to take some action. It's not just going to be about me taking action, but as we're talking about it, I think people listening will be able to hear the passion and the excitement that we both have for this really important topic.
So I really wanted to mention the fact that there were quite a few posts doing the rounds on LinkedIn. That I've noticed over the last year or so, saying that imposter syndrome doesn't exist, or otherwise they say it's a really unhelpful label that is being given to women. And actually, the problem isn't imposter syndrome, the problem isn't women.
I mean, I personally... don't think it does just affect women at all but that is what the narrative has been sometimes. Because the argument is that actually the reason anyone feels this way is because of societal biases and because of the way that society is constructed so as in it's misogynistic. Uh, we're working in a patriarchal society, along with all other sorts of injustices within the
societal framework that we operate. And I thought it was really important to address that by asking you, what is your take on that argument?
Aoife O'Brien:k it came out around February:
And it's one of the most popular articles on imposter syndrome, if you search for it. And for me, the whole thing sort of diminished the experience of a lot of women. So, it's not to say that it's just the environment, or it's just the individual. I think it's both at the same time. The second one then was a video that was doing the rounds about four or five months ago, a college graduation speech.
But I think these things get a lot of traction. People jump on the bandwagon. Oh yeah, stop telling women they have imposter syndrome. Uh, women don't have imposter syndrome. It's the bias. It's the experience of work that they have, or it's, whatever it might be, it's only an external thing, but actually I think it's both.
I think it's the internal feelings that we have and we can't diminish those experiences that, and again, like you said earlier in the podcast, it's not just women who experience imposter syndrome, but it's something that we associate quite closely with women. So I think to kind of answer your question about whether I think it's, it's useful, it's not really, I think we need to acknowledge the fact that it's, it's both the individual experience as well as the environment that we find ourselves in.
Building on that, one of the things that I thought was really interesting about your approach towards tackling imposter syndrome is the fact that you don't just target the solution at individuals, you also talk about the importance of organizations being aware of imposter syndrome and putting things in place to address it.
So it would be really interesting to hear, are you happy to share some of the recommendations that you've made for organizations to help tackle imposter syndrome so that it isn't, the onus isn't just on the individual to help themselves overcome it?
Absolutely. And I think when I first started talking about imposter syndrome, my focus was very much on the individual and how individuals can help themselves or how managers can kind of support individuals through their, their imposter syndrome experience.
But as I've kind of developed and grown myself, I've seen opportunities to help organizations create that environment where imposter syndrome doesn't fester, essentially, and I think it's important that organizations address these issues because When people don't speak up, they don't feel heard and they don't feel valued.
And when they feel like imposters, they don't speak up. It leads to underperformance and sometimes it leads to overperformance and burnout. So you're working all the hours so people don't find out that you're an imposter. And sometimes it leads to resignation as well. So people would rather resign from a job than that people find out that they're a total fraud.
I think in terms of setting the right environment. It's having that environment of psychological safety. And like, these are not just tips for managing imposter syndrome. I think these are, are quite general that it's really important to foster these types of environments anyway. So creating a space where it's okay for people to speak up, to share their opinion.
They're not going to be laughed at or ridiculed that it's, it's okay to share what's going on for you, even if it's just in a private space with HR or, or with your manager. I think setting really clear expectations for people, this is what is expected in the role. This is what is expected in this client relationship on this specific project and expectations in terms of time spent doing the work as well as expectations around quality.
So this is what good enough looks like. If you want to reach that level of good enough, then this is what you have to do. And it's not going beyond that good enough, because then you're venturing into kind of perfectionism, which is another core area related to imposter syndrome. So setting those really clear expectations, but then providing feedback on those expectations.
So this is where you met with expectations. And it's much easier to have those conversations if you have set those really clear expectations up front, that you can hold people to account and you can check for understanding, like this is where we kind of fell down. It also helps people to not
overwork, if they, if the expectation is this is the level that we require of you, you're not going to have to put in another two or three hours. I always relate back to my own corporate experience, if we're delivering a presentation to a client, for example, putting in all the slide transitions, animating that kind of objects, I'm like, who cares about that stuff?
You're not going to spend two or three hours longer if it's not necessary, if it's not going to help you to get your point across, for example. There are some more specific examples related to imposter syndrome in organizations in the report because one of the things I think that that came across from it was some of the very specific challenges that organizations have based on the individual's experiences of imposter syndrome.
Yes, the report is absolutely brilliant. I'll make sure I put a link to it in the show notes so that if anyone's listening and wants to read in depth about your research and what you found out they can do that. It would be great to hear from you Aoife, having done all of that research, was there anything that surprised you when you looked at the results and you looked at what people had shared about imposter syndrome?
I'd love to say that nothing, nothing surprised me and it was all, you know, all as expected, but it wasn't. Like there was so much in there. My own background is in data market research. So you were saying the report is very detailed. That's a testament to the 20 year career that I've had in analyzing data and pulling the stories out of it.
m hoping to do another one in:
So if you think about it, we are impacted. If we feel like imposters, we're not going to share our ideas, which has an impact on innovation for the organization. We're not going to ask for more money ourselves because we feel like a total fraud and we don't deserve it. And I know I had that experience myself where I asked for way more money than I thought I deserved and carried that burden almost throughout that role where I thought that was a clerical error, they're going to find out, they're going to realize that was a mistake for a long time.
The other thing I thought was interesting was sometimes we want to protect others. So we jump in and cover up other people's mistakes because we feel like it will reflect badly on us. Now, I had an interview with an author, Morra Aarons-Mele, on my own podcast, and she talked about this concept of over performing.
So basically we're over performing, we're jumping into the rescue. And then the other aspect is, as we've talked about earlier on the podcast, it's not just a female issue, men experience imposter syndrome as well, but there were nuances in how men experience it differently. So men typically experience it when they first become managers, but for women, the feelings of imposter syndrome exacerbate as they go.
And the most heightened feelings of imposter syndrome are when they reach that C suite level. I thought that was quite interesting as well.
Oh, really interesting results and such significant impacts on people personally and on the whole organisation. So, it's great to really see that you've been able to come up with recommendations for both.
And you've already very kindly shared some of your recommendations for organisations with us. So, my next question is going to be. Could you share some advice for anyone listening right now who might be thinking, Oh gosh, exactly what Aoife is talking about. This is really impacting me. I'm really experiencing these imposter syndrome feelings.
What can I do about it? What would your advice to them be?
I think, first of all, it's acknowledging it. I always start with, you need to acknowledge that it's imposter syndrome. Sometimes people think. Yeah, but Aoife, there is this thing called imposter syndrome, but you don't get it. I really am an imposter.
I don't deserve to be here. I did just get lucky. You know, recognizing that that is the imposter voice in your head talking to you. Thank the imposter because it's doing its job well. It's trying to protect you. It's trying to protect you from danger, from harm, from this feeling of being found out
or being a fraud. And I think just the knowledge that you can take steps to manage imposter syndrome. So. The steps I always talk about are the, it's A, B, C, and I know from listening to your previous episode on imposter syndrome, it's the same letters, but for mine is actually different words. So A is for acknowledge.
So simply acknowledging that it is imposter syndrome. B then is for belief. So how do you build up your belief in yourself? And then C is for courageous action. And confidence doesn't come from thinking and planning, confidence comes from taking action. So going back to your earlier example of the CIPD magazine, you're not going to get more confident by thinking and planning what you're going to say in that email.
You're going to get more confident by reaching out and understanding, well, what are the steps if I want my name mentioned in that magazine? So taking those small actions, I think every day helps us to build up our confidence to do the bigger things as well.
I love that we now have two ABC frameworks that people can use if they would like to.
Can I ask you a bit more about the B in your ABC framework? What would your recommendations be for building that belief in yourself?
Yeah, for me, something that works really well, and with my clients as well, is understanding what your strengths are. So what are those unique strengths that only you have and how do you use them in your day to day role at the moment, if at all? How have they shaped your career to date?
So for example, if I think of some of my strengths, one of them from Gallup is Achiever, another one is Learner. So I love learning stuff. If I think of how I apply that learning and I have an analytical mindset, it's how am I actually getting to use that? How has that shaped my career and how am I getting to use that in the position that I'm in currently?
And I think asking for feedback is really beneficial to help you to build up your self belief and understanding what your strengths are and how you can have opportunities to use those strengths as well. Looking for, and I always advise people to create like a folder. So I have a folder of feedback from people about the podcast, for example.
So having a little folder wherever that works for you, whether it's in your phone, in an email folder, something like that, but you have. Collected feedback from colleagues, from clients, from friends, whoever it might be that you can refer back to it and you can kind of look and be like, okay, you know. And I think constantly understanding that we're here on a journey and we're here, it's not always going to feel like this.
It's not always going to be like this, having that growth mindset and the beginner mindset. So, you know, that you still have some way to grow, but again, going back to this idea of taking action, you grow through taking action. You don't grow through planning and strategizing and thinking. It's all about taking that action.
What brilliant advice. I have got a few other podcast episodes from HR Coffee Time that will be helpful for anyone who's listening today and thinks, Oh yes, I'm loving all of this advice. I'd like to learn even more about it. So there are a couple of episodes on asking for feedback, because I know, especially if you are a perfectionist, or if you do have imposter feelings, actually you can shy away from asking for feedback.
t if I will have released the:
And the Gallup StrengthsFinder, the Clifton StrengthsFinder that you mentioned, I think is such a brilliant tool. So again, for anyone listening who thinks I don't even really know what my strengths are. Well, one way to find out is asking for feedback, but another really great way of finding out is with that assessment.
It's not an expensive one. I can pop a link to it in the show notes. And I've never had anyone who's taken that assessment, not think anything other than positive thoughts about it. It really shines a light.
When you read about your strengths like that, it makes it feel so good.
And, it also kind of highlights, I'd love to build on this point of asking for feedback. Like you don't have to ask for all types of feedback. You can ask for positive feedback. Why was I selected for this role? I want the positives. But then there are loads of other strengths tools that you can use as well to understand.
And like, I'm taking inspiration from you, Fay. And this has been on my list for a long time is the Working With Me Guide. Me being the perfectionist, I want to kind of make sure everything is filled, but I'm using that to kind of summarize here. This is what a few different strengths tests say about what my strengths are, but you may be in the wrong role where you're not getting to use those strengths and then you feel like you're out of place or out of your depth or whatever it might be.
How can you bring more of those strengths into the role that you're doing?
It's great to see we're both so passionate about lots of very similar things, Aoife, isn't it? With the StrengthsFinder, my, one of my sons, my older son, was asking me about that. I can't remember why. I must have been talking about it for some reason.
k the Strengths Assessment in:
And he said, oh look mum, that's why you've got a podcast, it's because it's one of your strengths. And I had never ever connected the dots there at all, that maybe one of the reasons I really enjoy having the podcast is because it's helping to play to a strength.
Love that, yeah, brilliant. Brilliant.
But anyway, anyway, I could very easily talk to you all day long, Aoife, as I'm sure you know.
I know, likewise, yes.
But sadly, our time today is limited, so I had better move us along to the question I try to ask every guest who comes on the show, and this question has evolved over time. It always used to just be , would you like to share a nonfiction book recommendation with us? But now you have a choice of two things.
Would you like to share a nonfiction book recommendation with us, or would you like to share a confidence building tip? The choice is yours.
When I knew that this question was coming up, being a listener of the show, I thought I can I offer two, me being again, the overachiever that I am, but I've given a bit of confidence advice already, so I'm going to just stick with one, which is the book.
And the book I recommend is called High Performance Habits by Brendan Burchard. And this is a book that I've had on my shelf, I'd say for a number of years, and probably a year ago, I picked it up and read the first chapter, but this summer, I picked up that book again, and it was exactly what I needed at the time.
It's essentially about how exceptional people become exceptional. So if you are the kind of person, and I think if you're listening to this podcast, you're the kind of person who wants to do good in the world, who wants to do well. It's understanding what kind of habits are going to get you there, because it's not the kind of standard habits that everyone does.
You need to have these exceptional high performing habits in order to achieve what it is that you want to achieve in the world. So it was exactly what I needed to read at the time. And I'm going to be recommending it to everyone.
Ooh, I'm going to have to add that to my never ending, enormous reading pile. Oh,
I hear you.
I've heard Brendon Burchard on some podcasts before, but I haven't read his book. So that's a great tip. Thank you very much Aoife. And before I say goodbye, for anyone listening who thinks, Oh my goodness, I would love to know more about Aoife or connect with her and learn more about her work. What is the best way of them doing that?
I think the best way is to go to my website, impostersyndrome.ie. So it's imposter syndrome, all one word imposter is spelled with an E at the end. I think sometimes in the US they spell it with an O. So imposter syndrome, ie. You will find everything you need there. There's a quiz, there's a report.
There's all of my social links as well. So feel free to connect with me across any of the social media platforms.
Brilliant. I will make sure I put that in the show notes. So all that leaves me to say is a huge thank you for your time today, Aoife. It's been wonderful chatting to you.
I absolutely loved the conversation today, Fay.
Thank you so much for the opportunity.
That brings us to the end of today's episode. I really hope you enjoyed listening to it and that you're excited about putting some of Aoife's tips into action. I'm going to force myself to be brave and get in touch with People Management magazine to ask them whether they'd be interested in mentioning HR Coffee Time.
I remembered after recording the interview with Aoife that the magazine has moved to being published quarterly rather than monthly now, so that's even more of a reason for me to hurry up and contact them, instead of keep putting it off and having loads of time go by.
What would you like to be brave and ask for or tell someone about?
I'd love to know. You can always reach me on LinkedIn. I'm on there as myself, Fay Wallis. That's Fay without an E on the end and Wallis with an IS on the end. Or you can reach me through the contact page of my website, which is BrightSkyCareerCoaching.co.uk. And if the topic of imposter syndrome or confidence is something you'd like to take a deeper dive into, I've linked to some HR Coffee Time episodes you might want to listen to next.
They're linked in the show notes, so they're easy for you to find, but the two that you'll probably find most helpful are the very first episode of the podcast that I ever recorded, which is episode one, how to feel more confident at work. And there's also episode 36, four simple but powerful techniques to banish imposter syndrome with my guest at the time, Joanna Lott.
Before I say goodbye, can I possibly ask you for a small favour? If you're enjoying the show, I'd really appreciate it if you could rate and review HR Coffee Time on whichever podcasting platform you're listening to it on. Reviews on Apple Podcasts are particularly helpful. I'd love any sorts of reviews, thank you so much, but reviews on Apple Podcasts do seem to be really helpful because they can affect where HR Coffee Time sits in the Apple podcast charts.
And they also encourage Apple to suggest the show to people who haven't heard of it before. And I would just love to reach as many HR and people professionals as I can with this free weekly show. Thank you so much. I really appreciate your support. Have a great week and I'm looking forward to being back again next Friday with the next episode for you.