Imposter syndrome was first coined in the ‘70s by psychologists studying high-achieving women who, despite their stellar academic and professional achievements, felt they were not really “bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” The hypothesis was that this only occurred in women but we now know that to be untrue. A recent global survey showed that nearly 6 out of 10 tenured employees experienced imposter syndrome in 2020 while the prevalence of this in their newly hired colleagues was even higher.1 The report also revealed something interesting: more men (80%) experienced imposter syndrome than women (69%), in the US at least. Imposter syndrome is pervasive. Question now is, how do we get this monkey off all of our backs?
I had a chat with Lakshmi Rajagopalan, a seasoned Fintech leader who currently works as the Chief of Staff at Partior in Singapore. Prior to Partior, Lakshmi spent over a decade in payments scaleup, Rapyd and Paypal starting as an engineer and pivoting to different roles where she grew and developed her FinTech expertise. She shared her imposter syndrome story, gave us tactical steps on how to combat it, and offered an alternative view in cutting the vicious cycle of this syndrome.
Lakshmi’s Imposter Syndrome Story
“Everybody experiences imposter syndrome at some point in their life where they feel like they don’t deserve their success or that they will be outed as a fake someone in spite of their education, in spite of their experience, [that they] are not meant to be where they are in their career journey.”, Lakshmi points out. The topic hits close to home for a couple of reasons. She has experienced it herself, helped a colleague through it, and was part of a panel covering it in the context of women in Fintech.
Imposter syndrome permeates the stories of everyone’s career journey. Lakshmi recalls the time when she did a career pivot from product management to business program management. The shift was radical as her familiar work environment was disrupted. Building products for a specific consumer or business segment, she was mostly working with engineers, product managers, and UX folks inside the organisation. When she got promoted, it was a fish-out-of-the-water experience. Her first task was to acquire a licence from a regulator in a market where they were already operational. It meant working with a new set of internal stakeholders as well as critical external stakeholders. She felt overwhelmed while everyone else was comfortable and confident working with her. Doubts began to enter her mind: What if I mess up something?
Luckily, she had a colleague whom she confided in and he gave her a simple solution – write down what she knew about the project and see what it looks like. It halted her negative spiral and gave her something concrete to do. Once she started to list down the knowns and unknowns, things started to take shape and she saw it more objectively. When she framed the unknowns as learning opportunities, she felt it was easier to tackle the project. She realised that if they are able to get the licence on time and make the business system operational, then the project is definitely successful.
Sharing her imposter syndrome story, engaging her support system, and identifying actual gaps helped her move on to her next steps. There will always be times when something new or uncomfortable comes our way and we question our capability. During these times, voicing our stories helps us pin down what exactly causes doubt. Lakshmi adds: “…it helps to just…reframe it in a way that makes it a challenge and an opportunity versus something that triggers your negative bias.”
Combating the Negative Bias
“Negative bias, the negative spiral is a real thing because your brain likes negative stimuli, more than positive stimuli. That’s why you more vividly remember your embarrassing moments than the last vacation that you may have taken…it’s why the sting of a criticism feels sharper than the joy of praise…Not only do you think about it more, you feel it more, but you also dwell on it more,” explains Lakshmi. She is no stranger to that awful downward spiral feeling. To combat it, she shares three tactical steps to avoid sinking into our own pitfalls:
- Nip it in the bud
Counter the negative thoughts by doing something contrary to what you are currently doing. It can be something as simple as getting up, going for a walk, putting on very distracting music, or downloading a mindfulness app like Headspace and listening to it. Get out of the destructive space and do not allow negativity to breed.
- Arm yourself with facts
It is easier to fend off negative emotions when you have facts. Take stock of your accomplishments. Update your resumé immediately whenever you are celebrating a win - go on LinkedIn and share the good story. For Lakshmi, when someone tells her that they are undeserving of a promotion, she creates a dashboard illustrating the impact of their work on the business. She asks them to keep and save the dashboard, and after a few months, review it to see how it is moving the needle.
- Tap into your support system
Ask help from mentors, coaches, or higher-level colleagues. Those trusted individuals in our network offer a different take compared to how we perceive things in our heads, shine a light on our blind spots and point to us nuances on improvement areas. Higher-level colleagues offer a different vantage point which may help us avoid missteps.
Tactical steps aside, Lakshmi differentiates feeling uncomfortable to feeling undeserving. She subscribes to the lobster theory. The lobster gets uncomfortable in its shell and sheds it to create a bigger shell for its growing body. “Signs of discomfort are signals for growth,” she remarks. When we are in our comfort zone, we are not necessarily stretching muscles, challenging our brains, nor growing right. However, she points out that imposter syndrome is not a sign of growth: “…being uncomfortable but still confident that you’re going to be able to learn this and pursue this is different from feeling you don’t deserve the success you have, [that] you don’t belong at the table.” We do not necessarily need to feel like an imposter to be uncomfortable. Growth is something we embrace; feeling like an imposter is something we fight against.
Let’s cut to the chase: representation matters. Managers with a minority background often struggle with fears and doubts in their new roles from the absence of role models in the workplace. While women gained more representation in C-suite roles, stories rarely mention that these are white women.2 Women of color actually lose ground to white women and men of color, with just a 4% representation in C-suite roles compared to 20% with white women and 13% with men of color.3
Lakshmi comments, “Women need to see other women be successful. They need to see people that have their same set of problems, same set of challenges. They need to see people who look like them, who behave like them, who have parts like them, who they can relate to so that they can find role models…if somebody has done it before you, that gives you a massive confidence.” Having two daughters, inclusion is critical to her. She considers herself fortunate as her current team in Rapyd is composed of 75% women, while her organisation on the whole are close to 40% women within her ranks. It is quite a feat considering that women, as a whole, are underrepresented in the global fintech industry with Asia having the highest proportion of female founders at just 7.7%.4
Lakshmi prefers to stay optimistic in driving changes, confident in showing the world that female engineers and female partner operation leaders can also make it happen in the fintech space. We are only waking up to the fact that the female economy is worth a lot of money - $18 trillion to be exact.5 For the past thousands of years, the world subscribed to a patriarchal order with both men and women holding limiting beliefs about themselves and each other. The world was built by men for men but now, we are finally seeing changes. Fintech can also be built by Asian women for Asian men and women. It is no longer just a unilateral women’s segment. Variation and diversity are finally being acknowledged on the agenda. To borrow from Melinda Gates, “When you lift up women, you lift up humanity.” As we have learned, varied perspectives and diversity is good for business as it ramps up innovation. Advocating for women and people of color is a critical driver of personal, professional, and business growth.
The experience of imposter syndrome is not limited to women only. However, it gets magnified because of lack of representation in the workplace.
- Tell your imposter syndrome story. Too often, we get caught up with our self-induced doubts that we fail to see our situation through objective lenses.
- Combat the negative bias by nipping it in the bud, arming yourself with facts, and tapping into your support system.
- Consider diversity and inclusion programs advocating for women and people of color within the organisation.