March 6, 2024

Leaders that Trigger Imposter Syndrome

I'm Melissa
I'm a Career and Leadership Coach for Women in Pharma/Biotech. I've been where you are, and I help you create the career you want without working more hours or settling for good enough.
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If you are questioning if you’re really as good as you thought you were, your self-confidence is bruised, and you wonder where your confidence has gone, then this episode is for you. We are uncovering whether or not leaders can trigger imposter syndrome in you.

I’m also sharing a study that explains why women are more likely to be triggered by toxic leadership behaviors than men.

What you’ll learn:

  • How your management can take you from confident to feeling like an imposter (when it’s not you, it’s them!)
  • 5 warning signs your leadership may trigger your imposter syndrome
  • 3 reasons why we get imposter syndrome
  • What science tells us about why women are more likely to become imposters than men

Mentioned in this episode:

Work with Melissa:

  • Get a new job, get promoted, or improve your current role inside Beyond the Ceiling – a group coaching program for women in Pharma/Biotech. Learn more
  • Looking for private 1-1 career and leadership coaching? Learn more and schedule a consultation
  • Want insider tips, access to new trainings, behind the podcast details and first-to-know information from Melissa? Join the free VIP Email Insiders


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Welcome to Your Worthy Career, a podcast for women in Pharma and Biotech with me, Melissa Lawrence. I am a certified career and leadership coach with a master’s in organizational psychology who has worked in talent and learning development in biotech to large pharma, from non-clinical to commercial. I help women in pharma and biotech create a career worthy of them. Whether you want to get clear on what you want, get a new job, get promoted, or be effective as a leader at any level, this is the place for you. Every week, you will get practical career strategies and mindset shifts to help you overcome the problems you experience at work so you can reach your goals feeling better than ever. Your up level begins now. 

Hello, hello, and welcome to this week’s episode of the podcast. Today, we’re going to talk about something I haven’t really talked about before, and it’s a little bit spicy. It’s a little bit sensitive and vulnerable around some of the experiences that we’re going to work through today, some that I’ve had, some that my clients have had. We’re going to talk about how leadership or your manager may trigger imposter syndrome in you.

Now, I’ve heard it many times. Women come to me and say that they used to be really confident in their career, but over time, they started to question themselves. They started to doubt if they were really as good as they thought they were. I have mentioned in an earlier episode that when I worked in industry, one of the senior leaders suggested that the culture impacted people and changed them, that they came into the organization excited, innovative, full of ideas, but just over time, they became more quiet, more complacent, and lost some of that spark they had when they just started. And she was wondering, did we do this to them? Is it a culture that is wearing people down? So it begs the question, is your doubt fueled by your leadership? Is it your manager or other leader that could have triggered imposter syndrome in you? Now, the idea of imposter syndrome is that you don’t see yourself the way that others do. It tends to make you feel like you don’t belong and causes overthinking and struggling with being too visible. It causes perfectionism and so on. I had an article published in Forbes a while back on how you can cure imposter syndrome, and it was more in the context of being in a meeting.

I can link to that here if you didn’t see it when it came out or you just want to get a refresher. But today, we’re going to talk about whether or not that feeling of self-doubt and we’re thinking, even when it’s maybe already there, but maybe it was just simmering, if your leader can cause that simmering to boil, to actually come out of the pot, so to speak, can your manager or leadership trigger it and cause you to suddenly feel less confident, less sure of yourself, and wondering if you’re really that talented after all. And the short answer is yes. When you are in an environment where you are being questioned, your insecurities are triggered. You are doubted, criticized for what seems like meaningless things, maybe even gaslighted and told that what you heard wasn’t said or you misunderstood it, right? When this happens over time, it does impact your self-confidence and the way that you think about yourself. The same way that this happens with children in abusive households, when people are in toxic romantic relationships, it’s all very similar. If you’re in a type of negative behavior where there are actions and behavior that are making you question yourself and feel bad about yourself over time, that is going to have more long term consequences for you.

And it doesn’t have to be outright abuse or clear toxic behavior either. A lot of times this happens with little small actions, little small experiences or interactions that you’re having. I worked for a manager once that clearly had a bias against women. This was a man, but I think women also can have bias against women. It just depends on how they were raised, the beliefs and norms instilled in them. And I think some bias is more likely to occur in older generations where women were treated like second-class citizens and literally didn’t have the same rights as them. If you can think about that perspective, if you grew up in a time where women didn’t have the same rights, they weren’t treated equally, then you may subconsciously be bringing some of that bias with you. I’m not saying it happens with everyone. I’m just saying it’s possible. So they don’t always know that they have bias, but it will show up in their behavior. When they dismiss younger employees, when they always go to the med on the team for updates and to ask questions, when there are two competing ideas, and one is coming from a man and one is coming from a a woman and the woman’s ideas weren’t taken seriously.

I’ve been in situations where I’ve suggested an idea and told it wasn’t going to work. And in the same meeting, when my male colleague said it, the manager said that this was a great idea. I was flabbergasted. I’ve been in situations where in group team meetings, I was asked if it was my time of the month. I’ve had a manager who suggested to another female colleague on the team that she and I fight in the bathroom and how he’d like to see. Now, you might wonder, okay, these are some crazy examples. And maybe you’ve experienced them too. When I send messages out to my VIP email insiders around some of these experiences that I’ve had that are more sensitive in nature or that my clients have had, I often get email replies back saying, Thank you for sharing this. This is something that I’ve gone through. Or, This is something that my friend has just gone through. So you are not alone if this is something that you’ve experienced or it’s something that a friend has I’ve experienced. But you might wonder, Okay, how is this connecting to imposter syndrome? So this same manager would also tell me in private meetings how exceptional I was, that he was on my side.

Other people were the naysayers, but he was on my side. That I was the best on the team. And the men on the team actually had a lot of work to do and could learn from me. They were not at my level. This is what he would tell me privately when obviously his behavior in our group settings was very different in groups or even when the men on the team were involved in the conversation, he would put me in my place, so to speak. That’s how it felt when I shared ideas. He would dismiss them quickly. The men on the team caught on to this. So if they didn’t want to use my idea or wanted to do things their way, they would just go to the manager directly and then they would disagree, tell me that it wasn’t a good idea, and then the manager would chime in, and it would be the men against me. But of course, on my performance review, there were glowing remarks because this behavior wasn’t okay, right? So it couldn’t be documented that there was actually a problem because there wasn’t. I was actually a star performer. But the bias against women and against me in this situation was something that was creating this negative experience where I ended up going back and forth between being frustrated and then wondering what I could do better or different or how I could communicate better, how this was an opportunity for growth for me, right?

So looking back I can see how wrong this treatment really was, but they were microaggressions in that moment. In the moment, they seemed wrong, but I was also doubting myself because I was getting this line of questioning. When I look back and I see all of the examples together, of course, they’re a lot more compelling that something was wrong. And I would be offended, but then I would just think like, Oh, it was just me. And then when my manager would make a comment about my time of the or emotion, I just wondered, is that true? Am I being too emotional? Could I have handled this differently? And when you’re in it, you might not think it’s that bad, that this is just how some situations are, or maybe you misunderstood, or you overcome it and you might doubt yourself, but then you persevere. And then there’s some reward in that. When you go through a difficult situation or you have a difficult boss and you overcome it for yourself, then it’s almost like you’re rewarding yourself and it gives you a positive consequence. Now, in that situation, I lost some confidence, but eventually I did speak up and I shared that I didn’t think some of that behavior was okay.

But the manager told me in response that I made him not want to be a manager because I gave him negative feedback, which is just another form of toxic behavior to try to guilt employees when they share a negative experience. Now, other ways my clients have experienced this have been very similar. Sometimes it’s just not listening to ideas or poking holes in them. Sometimes it’s character comments, the microaggressions about being too aggressive, passive aggressive, emotional. The things that men say to women to keep them quiet, to keep them in their place. I have another client who had a negative experience with her boss, and her boss would criticize her, but it wasn’t very specific. It was general. She would ask for more detail and not get it. So she kept trying to please her boss. And sometimes her boss liked what she was doing. And other times it seemed she would be doing the same thing and she would be criticized for it. So my client was trying to navigate that relationship by controlling what she could herself. But the target was moving all the time and she felt like she couldn’t win. And she started to doubt herself and really what she deserved to have in a job, like what level she should really be at.

She started to doubt that she could even be where she was, let alone get promoted to a higher level. Yet other people had witnessed this manager treating her poorly, and it just didn’t seem to make a difference. There was a discrepancy in what was on performance reviews, what was said in meetings, what was said in public. And that’s just sometimes what happens in the workplace. We’re dealing with human dynamics, but it doesn’t make it okay. I think it can be easier for women to empathize than men. So when we’re given feedback or something happens and it doesn’t sit right, we will be more likely to ask ourselves if they’re right and doubt ourselves, where men will be more likely to dismiss it. There’s actually been several studies that have proved this over the years. Now, a recent one I’ll mention is there was a study between Cambridge University and Harvard University, and the authors of the study were able to capture results from nearly 306,000 people across 57 countries. This was a global study. And in 36 countries, women scored on average significantly higher in their cognitive empathy scores than men did. In 21 of the countries, women’s and men’s scores were similar, but there wasn’t a single country in which men scored better.

So women are more empathetic. And when you have more empathy, then you’re able to look inward because you’re able to look at other people’s perspectives more clearly. And I think that our nature to be empathetic and look inward with toxic leadership behaviors that can trigger us, cause us to overthink, doubt ourselves, and analyze every interaction we have. And those are all symptoms of imposter syndrome. So if you’re feeling like you were more confident before you started your current role or earlier in your career, you’re probably right. Something shifted for you, whether it was triggered by a bad manager, the culture you’re in, or another factor. Now, here are some signs that your leaders may have triggered imposter syndrome in you. One, you question yourself and doubt yourself now more than you did before. Two, when you interact with your leaders, you leave the conversations feeling less confident. Three, your leaders question or poke holes in your ideas more than your other colleagues. For this one, I want to note that asking questions and pushback is 100% part of work and a skill to learn and to navigate so that you can navigate that effectively.

Questioning in itself is not a toxic trait. But if you’re finding that everything you’re bringing up or a lot of the times the things that you’re bringing up are getting really under a microscope and holes are being poked in it and you don’t feel like that treatment is fair across everyone, then that is a very good example. Your personal characteristics are discussed or mentioned in a way that makes you feel small or less than. Think emotional, passive, aggressive, on your period, too needy, too talkative, too fill in the blank. If your personal characteristics are discussed or mentioned in a way that makes you feel small or less, that is another sign that your leaders may have triggered imposter syndrome in you. Number five, you don’t feel that you can make your leaders happy no matter what you do. There’s a moving target and you can’t seem to meet it. Now, these are five signs that are indicators that the leaders you’re working with or the culture that you’re in isn’t a good fit for you, and it’s time to make a change. Imposter syndrome can come up in a lot of ways. Now, sometimes it’s triggered by a person or culture, like the things that we talked about today.

Sometimes it’s internal to you, an insecurity that you have about yourself that you’ve carried with you throughout your life of not feeling good enough. And sometimes you can get a positive form of imposter Foster syndrome, where you’re in a new leadership role and your self-concept, your beliefs about yourself, they just haven’t caught up yet. It’s like drinking water too fast. The water is coming faster than you can drink it and it’s uncomfortable and it may make you choke. You just elevated and grew in your career and your brain is still thinking about the prior version of you. It’s like you have the hose and the water just coming out too fast. But this is just a gap to fill by showing your brain just how far you’ve come. All right, that is all for this week’s episode. I hope that you enjoyed it and I will talk to you next week. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Your Worthy Career. Visit for full show notes and additional resources to help you on your career journey. Speaking of resources, if you enjoyed today’s show, you’ll love being a VIP email insider where I share trainings, tools, and behind the scenes content exclusive for my VIP list. Become a VIP and join us at See you next week.

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No longer settles for “good enough”

Hi, I’m Melissa.

Career & Leadership Coach for Women in Pharma/Biotech

I'm a former Talent & Development leader in Pharma/Biotech turned CEO and Certified Professional Career & Life Coach. I also host the podcast, Your Worthy Career.

I've been where you are, and I help you create the career you want without working more hours or settling for good enough.

I'm leading a movement of women in the industry who are figuring out exactly what they want and shattering the glass ceiling. The very real ceiling in the industry, but also the one that we impose on ourselves. 

So long, imposter syndrome and overthinking. It's time to step into the impact and life you're worthy of having.

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