Share this entry
At some point during their careers, many people feel like they’re simply “not good enough” — despite their objective success. And performance-driven Medical Affairs professionals can probably point to such a feeling in the not-so-distant past.
Such feelings of inadequacy are not easily controlled, and they tend to creep up at inconvenient, pressure-filled times. Unfortunately, this is such a common occurrence that it has a name: imposter syndrome. However, pinpointing the precise nature of imposter syndrome is often difficult — while the empirical literature on the topic is abundant, psychological academia hasn’t shown a strong enough dedication to exploring the syndrome more scientifically.
Still, describing the nature of imposter syndrome to any number of Medical Affairs professionals will likely result in many heads nodding in understanding — most have felt it overwhelm and diminish their work lives at a certain point.
Marieke Jonkman, PharmD., ACC, CEC, MHL
Taylor Spector, PhD
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome commonly afflicts high-achieving professionals who cannot internalize their positive accomplishments despite their objectively successful careers. They’re chronically plagued with self-doubt and constant fear of their imminent exposure as an imposter or fraud — someone who’s simply not as great at their job as everyone else seems to believe.
Essentially, people with imposter syndrome fail to attribute their work performance to their objective competence correctly. Instead, when things go right, they attribute their success to many external factors: from help from colleagues to simple luck. And when things go wrong, they perceive any setbacks as proof of their actual professional inadequacy.
The syndrome was first noticed and described by psychologists Imes and Clance in 1978. It was first identified among high-performance female professionals. Still, subsequent research has shown that identical feelings of professional inadequacy are noticeable among both men and women, across different racial and ethnic groups, and in diverse professional settings — including Medical Affairs.
Effects of Imposter Syndrome
Accountants, teachers, managers, physicians, nurses, MSL, and MA professionals — all of them tend to be affected by imposter syndrome. And its effects can be devastating over the long run — even though they might not be noticeable to outsiders at first. People suffering from imposter syndrome tend to aggressively pursue professional success while simultaneously not recognizing it when achieved; which means that other people might overlook the “flip side” of their high-performance state for a long time.
However, in the long run, affected professionals frequently experience decreased job satisfaction, lower professional performance, burnout, and gradually increased stress levels. In turn, this leads to severe implications for their career advancement and retention.
Different Types of Imposter Syndrome
While imposter syndrome affects a wide range of professionals from various fields — it doesn’t manifest itself identically in all cases. Self-imposed “imposters” don’t experience subjective feelings of failure and shame in the same way. And the reason for that is simple: different professionals can have wildly different definitions and measurements of competence — which makes their feelings of failure to reach those competence levels differently as well.
This aspect of imposter syndrome is critical when it comes to professional coaching for the affected individuals. Each type requires a different approach that leads these professionals towards healthy transformative introspection, ultimately resulting in their acknowledgment of their own success.
This type of “imposter” is a person who treats anything other than 100% success as a complete failure. A forgotten minor point they wanted to make during a meeting or presentation is enough to leave them devastated; their goal is to be absolutely flawless in their professional life.
Many view the Expert as a variant of the Perfectionist — with more focus on knowledge and expertise than the quality of work. As a result, they constantly feel like they’re lagging behind the curve — like they could be getting more certificates, enrolling in more courses, going through more books. Crucially, they tend to feel like they’re not qualified enough for a promotion — which holds them back.
The Natural Genius
One of the most debilitating kinds of imposter syndrome is the Natural Genius, especially when it comes to professional self-improvement and obtaining new skills. For these people, intellectual prowess is considered inherent — which is why they expect that they should know how to perform every part of their job role from the start. From this premise, they view any kind of gap in knowledge as proof that they are intellectual inferiors to their colleagues.
This specific type of imposter syndrome best describes the nature of the issue — Soloists don’t accept external help. Or rather, if they receive praise for work that they had help with, they won’t accept and internalize it. Essentially, good work doesn’t count if they haven’t done it all themselves. As a result of their hesitancy to ask for and receive help, their work generally takes a lot longer.
Finally, the Superhuman “imposters” believe that they simply have to excel in every role they have — not just in their professional but personal lives as well. Their imposter syndrome extends beyond their career, affecting them as parents, marital partners, community volunteers, etc. — and all at the same time.
Dealing With Imposter Syndrome
Professional transformative coaching is one of the best (and only) ways to deal with imposter syndrome. Gradually, coaching clients learn how to break down their current negative mindsets about their work performance. Subsequently, they adopt a more realistic, purposeful, and optimistic view of their professional life, leading to long-lasting confidence.
With professionals that have imposter syndrome deeply ingrained in their psyche since the beginning of their careers, coaches utilize evidence-based techniques — using the clients’ own experiences and observations to guide their mentality into a more positive place. These coaching best practices frequently utilize psychology and behavioral sciences, as well as motivational interviewing.
This is a goal-oriented, collaborative style of communication that puts a particular focus on a language of change. Motivational interviewing is designed to reinforce a professional’s personal motivation for working towards a specific goal by drawing out the person’s particular reasons for change — all in an atmosphere of compassion and acceptance.
When it comes to specific types of imposter syndromes, it’s essential to provide them all with the exact kind of coaching they need. Otherwise, they will likely feel reluctant and inhibited to seize new opportunities. Ultimately, this leads to their professional degradation as well as a reduction in departmental productivity.
For instance, helping a Perfectionist “imposter” doesn’t mean simply telling them to stop overthinking their results. Professional MA coaches know that these people deeply care about their work, and that’s something to be reinforced.
However, a series of transformative coaching sessions can lead them to the correct conclusion over time — “good enough” is sometimes the best anyone can do. They care about success, which is why coaches slowly help them persuade themselves that their perfectionism sometimes inhibits success.
On the other hand, helping the Expert overcome their brand of imposter syndrome means praising their pursuit of knowledge — while also making them aware that they can never learn everything. In addition, they often need reminding that competence also means being aware of your limitations and respecting them.
The Natural Genius needs the most transformative coaching experience among all types of imposter syndrome — they need to make a 180-degree shift from a fixed mindset into a changing, growth mindset. They have to realize that admitting a lack of knowledge on something is the only way to start learning. Also, the Natural Genius needs to be made aware of how little talent and innate intelligence mean next to effort and hard work.
Soloists, logically, need assistance to realize the value of others and work through their feelings of shame whenever they need someone else’s help. For example, if they need a bigger budget or more time to achieve the desired results, they must learn to ask for them without feeling guilty. Seeing as, like all “imposters,” they crave the feeling of competence — they need constant reminding that the work of others complements all successful people.
Finally, the Superhuman requires a broader approach than strictly professional coaching, seeing as their imposter syndrome often spills over into their private lives as well. They must become more comfortable with delegation, both at work and at home. Coaches often remind them of the unhealthy message they emanate to their loved ones or those who look up to them at work by constantly refusing to rely on others.
The Innovate article series highlights the ideas of Medical Affairs thought leaders from across the biopharmaceutical and MedTech industries. To submit your article for consideration, please contact MAPS Communications Director, Garth Sundem.