A healthier dose of self-doubt: Reframing and destigmatizing ‘imposter syndrome’ in Ontario hospitals

“I expect I will feel like an imposter until the day I retire,” quipped Dr. Gary Newton, President and CEO of Sinai Health and Proximity Institute Board Chair, with his characteristic dry humour when hearing about Proximity’s upcoming article on ‘imposter syndrome’.

Proximity’s curiosity in the imposter phenomenon stems from a series of conversations with Ontario hospital CEOs and senior leaders who openly express feelings of self-doubt despite their laudable achievements and impressive career trajectories.

‘Imposter syndrome’ is common amongst leaders at all levels and backgrounds (Bravata et al.). A healthy dose of it can be beneficial in the practice of leadership, be a sign of leadership humility and contribute to a growth mindset (Stillman).

The manifestation of imposter syndrome becomes concerning, however, when it takes root within an organizational culture and diminishes the confidence and sense of belonging of talent, particularly for those who face inequities.

This can be a blind spot for CEOs.

How does imposter syndrome manifest in a culture? 

Although the signs of its presence are visible through individual leadership expression, the source of imposter syndrome is less visible and often lurks just beneath the surface of organizational culture. These examples were drawn from Proximity’s conversations with Ontario hospital leaders.

New members of a leadership team hold back in meetings and discussions despite having clear authority and expertise in the area under consideration. 

This may be taken for shyness or cultural acclimatization, but these individual executives admit to perceiving the experiences and credentials of their colleagues as being of greater value than their own. A CEO must get out in front of this to effectively integrate and derive critical value from internal talent promoted onto an existing leadership team or when onboarding a new executive from outside. Encouraging belonging and reinforcing confidence is vital at the outset. 

Dominant voices within a leadership team consistently interrupt, cut off and even dismiss the contribution and participation of colleagues. 

This may be perceived as dominant voices having more to say, more to contribute or more experience, but may be a symptom of a culture where making others feel less adequate is normalized. The result is self-censorship by some who would prefer to dodge yet another experience of feeling dismissed or minimized. CEOs must be vigilant about a culture that is unwittingly enabling this dynamic.

Executives preface an entirely valid input to a discussion with an apology.

“This might be a stupid comment…”, or “I’m not sure if someone else said this already…” can be overt expressions of someone feeling like an imposter. Politeness could be one explanation. Another is an executive diminishing their own value and feeling inadequate. Is it purely an issue of individual self-esteem? Or might it be a chronic symptom of a culture of intolerance, impatience and even fear?

High potential leaders are reticent to step forward to take on new challenges and leadership roles.

This may be an individual not having the interest or capacity to take on new and different work. But it might equally be propelled by nagging questions of self-doubt. These doubts may be fueled by mixed signals from others of their ‘readiness’ that can be subtly diminishing. At a time when talent is scarce and every executive matters, hospital leaders must consider why certain groups may have lower rates of internal promotion and progression through the ranks of the organization.

How might a CEO take the sting out of this phenomenon?

CEOs we spoke with were unanimous in their commitment to creating an inclusive culture that embraces diversity of background, thought and opinion. This is but a necessary starting point. Best emerging practice points to a need to reframe the manifestation of ‘imposter syndrome’ from being a leadership impediment to a catalyst for personal and organizational growth. This can be achieved through open discussion, a continued emphasis on diversity and inclusion, accepting failure and being vigilant to the cultural cues of imposter syndrome as CEO (Abramson).

Bringing imposter syndrome into the light is vital.

Works Cited

Abramson, Ashley. “How to overcome imposter phenomenon.” American Psychological Association vol. 52,4 (2021): 44.

Bravata, Dena M et al. “Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review.” Journal of general internal medicine vol. 35,4 (2020): 1252-1275.

Stillman, Jessica. “3 Reasons Imposter Syndrome Is Actually a Professional Superpower, According to a Professor Who Wrote a Book on Spotting Talent.” Inc.com (2022).


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