I stared at her, our new head of HR, with some consternation. She stared back, perplexed. The fact that she was highly competent was not under debate. Her terrific track record and dynamic thinking had led to her being appointed the head of department at an age much younger than the norm. But as I sat there, trying to have a conversation with her that I’d repeatedly had before, I realised with a sinking feeling that she was not her predecessor.
Her predecessor, Sara, had been an aggressive and assertive department head who hadn’t much cared for boundaries. She had unerringly understood the implicit authority of her role and therefore had been involved in the functions of all the other departments. She saw herself adding value to those departments and would make sure that she was not only part of the decision making, but an active influence there. Through intelligent use of her abilities and experience she had expanded the parameters of her role so well that HR was treated as a crucial voice at the board room table and not merely a support department in the organisation.
When it was time for Sara to move to a higher position, I was sad to lose her. But I recognised that a person of her calibre needed a playing field proportional to her ever expanding skill set. Enter the new recruit—our young but talented HOD from whom we expected great things.
Janice came into the organisation at a time when we were going through a huge sales challenge. But she made no move to pitch solutions or offer opinions about it. As we sat having this now familiar conversation, I asked her why she wasn’t a part of the sales meetings.
“I wasn’t invited,” she replied glumly.
“I hope you realise that revenue is currently our biggest challenge today? What’s the concept of HR that we have built in this organisation? It’s not just to recruit and train people. It’s also to be involved in the business functions and see how you can be a source of support. Your role is exactly the same as that of your predecessor. You are supposed to be a partner to the CEO. Are you seeing yourself like that or not?” I asked, frustrated.
Janice looked like she desperately wanted to please, but didn’t know how. As she gazed at me deeply anguished, I felt like I had kicked a puppy. Truth be told, I identified with her more than she realised. And I was hard on her because I saw her on the verge of making the same mistake I had once made. With disastrous consequences.
I am talking about a mistake many women make repeatedly, a self-debilitating misconception they suffer from called, rather dramatically “The Impostor Syndrome”. The syndrome is defined as a psychological pattern in which individuals doubt their accomplishments and internalise their fears of being worthless. They feel that their position has been handed to them by a twist of fate or good fortune and that they have not earned it. This leads them to be tentative and uncertain, exactly when they are supposed to be pushing themselves to make the most of a new opportunity.
Flashback to three decades ago when I was a bright eyed early twenty something who had only one goal in life—to get into an IIM. While appearing for the Common Admission Test, an exam that about two lakh entrants take and only two thousand make through, I was not nervous. I was a bright student. I had been preparing for it with single-minded focus and had aced all the practice tests.
When the results came in, no one was surprised to learn that I was the only person from my batch to have got through to IIM Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Kolkata at that first written stage. But the interview round was quite another matter. The conservative home environment I grew up in deemed all knowledge that was not in the school syllabus irrelevant. My inherent shyness didn’t help matters. I performed poorly in the group discussion and interview rounds.
When the results were announced, I was shattered to find that I hadn’t made it to any of the IIMs. My family went into mourning. I spent the next few months moping over broken dreams, staring forlornly every morning at our letter box and willing the unlikely call letter to drop into it. And then one day, magically, it did.
This was their second list. I hadn’t made it on their first. I couldn’t care less. I packed my bags and rode off into the sunset. Given how precious this victory was to me, I worked hard to make the most of it. The first two months at IIM, I did well in every new subject that was introduced. Even the alien finance and quantitative mathematics courses were no match for my voracious determination.
Then as I slowly started getting to know my classmates better, I saw the majority of them were from IIT and had some impressive work experience under their belts. I started comparing myself with all the bright sparks around me and suddenly the fact that I hadn’t made it on the first list took on new meaning. It was because I was a mere graduate from a regular college with no work experience! That was who I was—a second-lister, who had meandered by mistake into a constellation she was never supposed to be part of! I spent the next few weeks walking around with scarlet letters of shame plastered figuratively on my forehead!
And then the obvious happened. My grades started dipping and for the remainder of my first year, I did poorly in all my exams. The eight to nine months of failure were not only wrapped in misery but also mystery. How did I lose the plot so badly?
I was hurtling full speed in a downward spiral I could not pull the brakes on. From the shame of not being a first-lister to not being as qualified as my classmates, I let externalities convince me that I was not good enough. Imposter syndrome tells you you’re a fraud for choosing to inhabit the role you’ve rightfully earned. Back then, I believed it.
Many years after that IIM debacle, a previous boss asked me to head Zee TV. The job would be a quantum leap from my then current position. Hesitantly I accepted. The environment I entered into was a highly charged one. Amid rampant internal workplace politics and intense external competition from the newly re-launched Star Plus channel, it was a time of crisis. Three months later, the CEO who got me there left the organisation. Isolated in that unfriendly atmosphere, with my only source of support gone, I began questioning my ability to get the job done. The ground was ripe for the imposter syndrome to raise its ugly head yet again! ‘I am not trained for this job.’ ‘This position is higher than the promotion that would have come about in the normal course of my career.’ ‘This malevolent environment is just not conducive to productivity.’
But this time I was better prepared to handle these invidious beliefs simply because I knew they were lurking like ghostly shadows around me.
I reminded myself that nobody was questioning my qualifications to be there except myself. Outwardly everyone was seeing the president of Zee TV even if inwardly I felt like a junior executive starting her first job. I knew I could help that organisation. I knew that my ex-manager had not recommended me for this position as a favour. The stakes were much too high for that. He had done so because he felt I was the most qualified person for this task.
Backing my own intelligence and reinforcing my sense of self-worth to myself, I realised, was the key to fighting the deadly insidious forces of imposter syndrome. This time around, I was committed on becoming my own ally instead of a saboteur. And I proceeded to own my role as president and do work I was proud of.
The syndrome shows its worst form when we are given a platform to operate on and we choose to occupy only a small part of it. Quite like my newly minted HR head was now doing. ‘I am too young. I am too junior. The CEO and I are not at the same level. I can’t barge into meetings I am not invited to.’
We all suffer from this syndrome at some time in our lives. Yes, even that confident alpha male colleague who is ponderously explaining the impact of agrarian distress on the economic environment to you just now!
And my own experience tells me that there is a deceptively simple way to fight this enemy. Self-talk. It works magic, but we just do not do enough of it.
(This excerpt from ‘Lady, You’re the Boss’ by Apurva Purohit has been reproduced with permission from Westland Publications.)