Case Study: When the Imposter Syndrome Meets the Doormat Syndrome
I meet a lot of high-achieving women in my work. They are talented, highly educated and driven to succeed, and raised up on the belief that doing more-better-faster is not only good but necessary.
But what happens when high-achieving behaviors turn into overachieving behaviors?
You might be thinking, well, it’s one thing to hit targets and excel, but why stop there? Why not exceed targets and consistently over-deliver to keep your brand promise polished, ready for what’s next?
Curiously, many of these overachieving, amazingly capable women grapple in some measure with two things:
1. The imposter syndrome. Believing you don’t deserve to be where you are because of some self- or culturally-induced inadequacy (credential, education, length of experience, personality, etc.).
2. The doormat syndrome. Believing you just need to keep saying yes, and over delivering without asking for anything in return. Someone will someday recognize your value and hoist you up the ladder and crown you with the title and compensation you deserve.
Overachieving suppresses the imposter syndrome for a time —sometimes years. But couple the imposter syndrome with the doormat syndrome and that brand promise becomes invisible. To illustrate this, here's a study on the cost of overdelivering on women's worth, conducted by Major, McFarlin and Gagnon, as reported in Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide:
Both men and women were asked to count dots on cardboard squares for $4.
They were asked to keep working until they felt they had earned their $4.
They found that women worked 22% longer and counted 32% more dots than their male counterparts before they believed they were entitled to the $4.
Both women and men felt equally satisfied with their pay and performance.
It’s that "equally satisfied" bit that gets me. It gets you too, right?
Anna the Magician, a Mini Case Study
Anna is an engineer with three master's degrees. She worked for five years in a senior management role and department where she enjoyed immense autonomy. Despite the fact that her budget was small and her requests for additional staff and resources were consistently turned down, she continued to pull the rabbit out of the hat and make things work. She never set her influence in motion because she didn’t want to be seen as a bragger, or a taker, or someone who needed help.
On top of that, she resisted opportunities for advancement in the organization because the department she ran was “her baby” and she loved her staff, loved the problems they routinely solved. She said that because of all the accolades and praise she and her staff received from clients, it made it all worth it.
Then one day she was told she and her staff were going to be moved under the wing of a different department, and suddenly she was in trouble. The new boss had only a dim understanding of what Anna was doing. Her daily activities, her accomplishments, her brilliance, and her usefulness to the vision and goals of the organization were all kinda murky.
How do you navigate a scenario like this when you've spent years overachieving and asking for nothing in return? And what do you do when you know that doormat needs to be ripped out from under you?
Anna had to make her case at every turn. She had to pull forward the hard work of many years into a coherent narrative that demonstrated her present and future value for the new boss/department. She had to network and influence for her own benefit, and for the benefit of her staff. And because autonomy was like air to her, she had to establish and repeatedly take a stand for her team's culture and boundaries without sacrificing collaboration and contribution to the new vision.
Even though the reorganization was excruciating for Anna, it provided the perfect Petri dish for personal and professional growth – one that is very much a work in progress.
To begin, Anna knew she needed to build an influence plan to bring her and her team into the light. To be seen and heard and useful to the new vision of the organization. To do that, she had to reconnect with herself first. She made an exhaustive list of everything she accomplished and contributed over the past five years. She mined that list for values, strengths and repeating themes, which provided the raw material for developing career narratives and stories that would become useful influence tools.
But the most useful shift Anna made was focused around the principles in Greg McKeown's book, Essentialism -- doing the right thing, at the right time for the right reason. In other words, the choices she and her team made every day had to be evaluated in terms of specific personal and organizational vision and goals.
There's much more to this story, but I'd like to turn it over to you. If you're a recovering over-achiever, what teachable gems can you share about your process? I'd love to hear your story...