Imposter syndrome, self-doubt, my inner critic, the ‘lizard on my shoulder’…

Just a few of the ways that our coaching clients refer to their perception of not being ‘good enough’ or ‘as good as others’.

Does this resonate with you?

I’m expecting about 60% of you to respond ‘yes’ since our GLWS research tells us that is the number of leaders who ‘doubt themselves more than they probably should’ in the workplace. For the women reading this, it’s likely to be even more, since we also know this to be more frequently endorsed by women than men (see more below).

We’ve written about self-doubt and impostor syndrome before, and there are many articles and books you can find on building confidence, overcoming fear and self-doubt (‘in 7 easy steps’!) and having an “awesome life”.

I’m not knocking any of these (directly) and do selectively read and recommend them from time to time. But the theme of ‘overcoming’ or ‘banishing’ self-doubt is what I do want to challenge.

Is self-doubt such a bad thing?


Leadership without self-doubt

Pause for a moment and think of someone who could fall into the category of never doubting themselves. Maybe a colleague, a boss, the (so-called) leader of the free world… What might some of their traits and behaviours look like?

Believing they are always right, not listening or encouraging input, imposing their views on others, failing to consult or collaborate because of their deeply-held confidence in their own capabilities, never expressing uncertainty or vulnerability, not seeking learning or development and so on.

If these tendencies were truly held and played out in the same person, I don’t think we would be looking at a high performing leader, would we?

This would be a case where self-confidence and self-esteem has morphed into arrogance and become an ‘over-used strength’ or a ‘derailer’.

What’s so good about self-doubt?

I asked a few clients this question recently as a means to help them positively reframe their experience of self-doubt. Thanks for the contributions!

They said the positive outcomes of self-doubt can be:

Seeking input from others, encouraging discussion and asking questions, eagerness to collaborate, checking their thinking with others, feeling driven to improve and learn, not assuming they know best.

I agree, these can all be positive traits, in the right measure. Fundamentally, having some self-doubt allows for humility and vulnerability – and with this comes authenticity and connection. See Brené Brown for the expansion on this point.


All things in moderation

I’m not saying that all self-doubt is good and being self-confident is bad. That would be ridiculous.

Clearly some individuals can experience self-doubt to the point of this restraining them from taking any action, severely limiting their capacity to perform and for some, challenging their sense of self-worth. I would never minimise the debilitating impact that this can have, nor try and address it in an email such as this.

My goal here is to encourage a few people to rethink their self-doubt – is this such a bad thing? What does it bring me that’s helpful and actually makes me a better leader and performer? Can I embrace my self-doubt as something that motivates me and keeps me ‘real’ and connected to the people around me?

Instead of ‘overcoming’ or eliminating self-doubt, how about you hold on to it, make room for it, and accept this as part of your make-up? But try holding it lightly, not tightly.

I experience self-doubt every time I think about writing one of these blogs… a whole conversation with myself about “What do I know about wellbeing that’s interesting?”, “You sound so preachy and ‘know-it-all’”, “Audrey’s blogs are so much better than mine” and so on.

But you know, it still has to be done – and it drives me to research and learn and build my knowledge. Or to stop and think deeply about the people I work with and their lived experiences (today’s version). And I think, often, the result is ok, or maybe even… quite good?