Is Insufficient Leadership Development Leading to Imposter Syndrome?

- 7 min read

In our research, we found an alarming statistic that 58% of people would trust a stranger more than their own boss. At first glance this seems pretty damning. It begins to look different, though, when you take into account that according to CMI research as many as four out of five managers in the UK are accidental managers – those who were promoted to their role without adequate training. 

We all want to be proud of the impact we have, and managers are positioned to have an extraordinary one. They are the difference-makers on the front-line; engaging employees, escalating customer priorities and executing on key company strategies. Their role’s potential is unmatched, but as FranklinCovey research reveals, it is too often left untapped. Or, in the pandemic-era vocabulary we’re all sick of familiar with, left to ‘survive’ rather than ‘thrive’.

This is because fundamental, human shifts in the way leaders need to think and act are often not fully understood or effectively addressed. As a result, in the decade of research that produced our Wall Street Journal Bestseller Everyone Deserves a Great Manager: The 6 Critical Practices to Leading a Team, we discovered that 81% of first-level leaders said they felt unprepared for their leadership when first offered the position. What’s more, over 60% said they feel overwhelmed with their responsibilities at least a few times a month.

If new leaders stepping up the career ladder for the first time aren’t equipped with the competence or confidence to succeed in this demanding yet rewarding role, the likelihood of them internalising a paralysing self-doubt, perfectionism and warped perception that undermines both themselves and their team, skyrockets. Now more than ever.

Is today’s world primed for imposter thoughts?

According to the International Journal of Behavioural Science, more than 70% of people are affected by workplace imposter thoughts at some point in their lives. Whether you relate to that specific term or not, self-doubt gets the best of us and has long been a chronic problem. 

Today, it is a problem which has been exacerbated by a pandemic which tested everyone’s resilience, restructured teams and threw people into unexpected positions of responsibility. For both new and seasoned leaders, it raised the stakes of their everyday job in an unprecedented way, requiring them to lead decisively but sensitively, with a presence but through a screen, as advocates for burnt-out teams but also drivers of their results.

Nobody could have predicted what the world has recently gone through, and it is true that the pandemic has opened eyes to the crucial importance of learning and development. However, the answer to whether or not more could be done to safeguard managers’ resilience, agility and energy, must surely be yes.

Combine this with the fact that first-level leaders today are often high-performing millennials, the main victims of “hustle culture” which glorifies overwork and heightens a fear of failing, and companies are left with managers primed for imposter thoughts. 

The urgency today, is that increased self-awareness and employer scrutiny means young leaders are less likely than ever to stick it out in a role or organisation that disables self-belief or causes significant stress.

A crisis of position 

The leap to leader comes with not only new practical responsibilities, but a need to reframe how they view their value and position in the organisation. People skills become the backbone of their role, rather than their technical capabilities.

Getting work done with and through others is the critical mindset to being a great leader. But when new leaders are not  only going from team member to manager, but from peer to superior, friend to boss, uncomfortable challenges that aren’t typically addressed by the onboarding process can get thrown up. 

Earlier this month the BBC interviewed Lea, a 25 year old who was promoted to manage the team she was on, who shared: “I was managing people who were the same age as me. I had only a couple months extra experience than the people I was in charge of. I’d gotten the role because I established good leadership skills, but I was also afraid of being too assertive or dominant.” 

Frankly, it can be tough for first time leaders to figure out exactly where they fit or how to wield their newfound influence, both in relation to their direct reports and senior management- especially when they are closer in age to the former. The nuanced change in communication, the balance of authority and knowing when to lean in or step back, can be overwhelming to navigate without accidentally reverting to ‘individual contributor’ mode. 

Don’t leave the success of your first-level leaders, and your organisation, to chance—download our complimentary six-step guide to help your people make the mental leap to leader. 

A lack of credibility

The self-doubt and lack of confidence can manifest in a number of ways, such as: 

  • A scarcity mindset which believes there isn’t enough credit or recognition to go around for everyone, frequently derived from a desire to prove themselves
  • A preoccupation with their own flaws or reputation at the expense of their direct reports’ growth
  • Struggling to make decisions, delegate effectively or clear the path for others
  • Difficulty giving tough feedback or navigating sensitive conversations
  • A failure to provide clear direction or inspire loyalty

The above are all critical practices to leading a high-performing team, and therefore critical limitations when they’re not executed. These behaviours end up translating into a lack of credibility that damages team trust, and therefore speed and output, reinforcing the belief that they aren’t “cut out” for a managerial position. They become disillusioned and reactive, unless organisations are intentional about instead reinforcing the right mindsets and skillsets.

A lack of confidence isn’t the only insufficient training risk

Continuous leadership development sets an expectation for self-improvement that empowers a growth mindset, the essential precursor to learning. For some, a failure in this area can breed self-doubt, insecurity and an inability to lead decisively, for others it is the opposite. For some leaders, another consequence of insufficient training is stunting overconfidence. 

There is a logic behind our finding that on average the amount of time it takes new leaders with self-proclaimed introverted personalities to feel they are making a positive impact is 30% longer than compared to those with extroverted personalities.

A “fake it till you make it” attitude can prove incredibly proactive, motivational and empowering. But when it is not guided by growth or supported by a self-awareness continuous development provides, overconfident leaders can be created. These leaders lean into courage a little too hard, mistakenly magnifying their capacity and downplaying problems. 

Conversely, a healthy dose of self-doubt can in fact propel us forward, rather than hold us back. It can instil effective traits, such as humility, preparedness and an openness to other people’s perspectives.

The antithesis of a culture of growth and progress is one where there is a sense of pressure to overachieve and a constant need to prove yourself. Is there a bias at play in your culture which could be contributing to that?

A lack of investment in development doesn’t send the right message

Proactive leadership development opportunities are an investment that your business can’t afford not to make. Research shows that first-level leaders who have received formal training are twice as confident in their ability to manage as those without leadership training. Additionally, they feel more confident to lead their teams through change, are more likely to develop a coaching mindset and to say that they have the trust of their teams.

Whereas when first-level leaders lack formal training they feel frustrated, blocked and that they aren’t trusted.  They hear the organisation say that adjusting to leadership should be seamless. 

Ultimately, the antidote to imposter syndrome is honesty. Meet your new first-level leaders where they are, give them both the permission to not have all the answers, but also the expectation to push themselves.  Acknowledge if they are first-time managers and position senior leaders as mentors who are there to share their experiences.

Openly recognise the challenge of leadership, demystify the transition by giving it a structure, shout about learning never having an end date. Then watch your leaders thrive.