YOUNG BLACK ENTREPRENEUR MAGAZINE
THE SPRING FORWARD ISSUE
I am about to tell you a secret, but you have to promise me you won't tell anyone: I want to be a model, a fashion model. I love fashion, I love being in front of a camera, and cameras adore me. And while I often get an ego boost when friends tell me I should be a fashion model, I know better. Even if I met the strict body standards to be a fashion model, I would still not be ready to succeed in the industry because it takes more than good looks, the right height, and the proper dimensions to succeed.
If I were confused and thought my looks alone were enough, I would quickly recognize I was out of place when I showed up for auditions. I would show up looking fabulous with nothing but my God-given beauty and a little bit of Mented Cosmetics on my face, while the people who were real models and adequately prepared to succeed would have at least a portfolio in hand. No matter how much I looked the part, I would immediately feel out of place, like an imposter.
Now, imagine the above scenario, me going to a modeling audition, showing up empty-handed, but this time the faux pa happened under the watch of my hired talent agent. The agent, who claimed to be vested in my success, booked this audition, did not adequately prepare me, and when I called them concerned, they said, "Dethra, relax, you have imposter syndrome. Pull yourself together; you are just as good as everyone else there; you will do fine."
NO, I WON'T do fine, and NO, I DON'T have imposter syndrome.
I will not do as well as everyone there because I was not given all of the tools needed to succeed in this audition. I also don't have imposter syndrome; my agent created an imposter.
The creation of imposters is happening every day in companies. Companies promote people from marginalized populations to positions of "authority." When the person promoted expresses concerns about their ability to perform, they are met with the sexy diagnosis of "imposter syndrome," which they do not have.
Now, let's pause; imposter syndrome does exist. Imposter syndrome is when you have everything you need, but you still have self-doubt. We all have imposter syndrome from time to time. It is that feeling in your gut before you hit the stage to give a speech, simply because the person before you did an excellent job. It is the sinking feeling right before you give a presentation you spent weeks of work to perfect. Imposter syndrome is real, but so is imposter creation.
What is often labeled imposter syndrome is companies, leaders, and executives creating imposters but not taking responsibility for their actions. In the scenario I gave of the model and the agent, the agent's job was to ensure the model knew to arrive at the audition with a portfolio. The model not being prepared with the proper tools and not getting the gig is the agent's fault. How can the agent transfer blame when the model recognizes that something off? Easy, tell the model they have imposter syndrome.
Companies do this blame transfer flawlessly. A company will promote a Black woman who has the education, years of experience, and time in the company to a senior role. The woman will get into the position, feel a little out of sorts, and expresses her concerns. When she states, "I don't feel prepared," she is met with the sexy diagnosis, "It is just imposter syndrome; you will do fine." No one in that company will stop and ask, "did we create an imposter? Did we give her all of the tools she needs to be successful, the tools that go beyond education, years doing the task, the intangibles that successful people learn behind closed doors in the after-hours meetings? The meetings she was never invited to attend."
If companies stopped to ask this genuine question, they would most often find that the answer is "Yes, we created an imposter; she does not have or know what she needs to be successful."
Here is the problem with the overuse of "imposter syndrome," it puts the action of fixing the issue on the people who did not create the problem and don't have the access or resources to fix it.
Big deals are made on the golf course and bars of private, invitation-only country clubs. If you were never invited to those meetings, you have no clue who the deal is being made with, by and for. The information shared at the country club is a massive piece of what it takes to succeed in a senior-level position.
So, when the newly promoted Black woman walks into the boardroom on her first day, she realizes everyone in the room knows each other. She also realizes that she knows no one. And she realizes they are already talking about deals, projects, and accounts she had never heard about. But, what also stands out is the "new guy" who got promoted the same time she did seems to be well acquainted. She quickly realizes she does not have a syndrome; she was set up to be an imposter, one the company created.
So, let reevaluate the use of the phrase imposter syndrome and let's hold companies accountable for the imposters they create and fixing the problem.