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Working Through Imposter Syndrome with ‘Moxie’

Working Through Imposter Syndrome with ‘Moxie’

Impostor syndrome – doubting one's skills and achievements or fearing being exposed as a fraud – can happen to anyone, but often is felt by high achievers from underrepresented backgrounds who might feel that they do not fit in, are not welcome, and do not belong in a certain position or title they have earned. Impostor syndrome can be crippling mentally and emotionally, as those who experience it regularly tend to worry about whether they deserve their role, distracting them from actually doing their best in the position. We work with individuals who, on the face of it, have no reason to doubt their ability, talent or position, but as we get to know them and explore their belief system, invariably some level of imposter syndrome is discovered.

Lots of research has been done on this area, and recently I read a piece in the Harvard Business Review by Keith Dorsey that certainly resonated with me. Dorsey, who has worked with many individuals experiencing impostor syndrome in his role at an executive search firm, suggests that there are several ways to address and potentially overcome these feelings.

What I liked was the concept of having moxie – an intensity of motivation characterized by strength of will, self-discipline, and the ability to persist despite challenges – as an important factor in finding success in a challenging role and overcoming impostor syndrome. For instance, when individuals with moxie face an obstacle, like negative feedback on a project they are working on, they don't tend to see it as a personal failure or as an insurmountable systemic barrier. Instead, they tend to turn it into a source of motivation. In fact, one study revealed that moxie was a stronger predictor of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation compared to other constructs like grit and self-control, and it also appeared to predict goal achievement.

While moxie does not necessarily come naturally, there are several ways for individuals to build and deploy it in their professional lives. For instance, hardship can be turned into moxie by reflecting on how a previous difficult situation was handled and resolved successfully. Doing so can help a person uncover their unique brand of moxie and help them overcome future challenges. Another method is to engage in "identity play", experimenting with new ideas and behaviours when taking on new professional challenges and roles. This tactic recognizes that a new position might require different knowledge and behaviours than previous roles, emphasizing the presence of a learning curve whenever trying something new. In addition, tuning out negative voices who point out supposed inadequacies can maintain their focus on the task at hand rather than worrying about belonging. Notably, this approach is different than accepting constructive criticism about a specific project, which could help improve performance going forward.

In sum, while building moxie is not necessarily easy, taking the time to focus on previous successes and challenges that have been overcome and accepting that it's impossible to always perform perfectly in a new role can help overcome impostor syndrome.



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