Imagine a remodeler at the top of his or her game, bringing in millions in revenue, yet still feeling like a complete fraud who has no business owning a company. Recently, the owner of a successful home improvement company emailed Pro Remodeler with exactly these feelings. The emailer’s business boasts steady sales and impressive growth, but the owner still struggles with feelings of inadequacy.
What this professional is experiencing is common enough to have a name: impostor syndrome.
WHAT IS IMPOSTOR SYNDROME?
The 2019 study “Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review” (Bravata et al.) analyzed 63 other studies focused on impostor syndrome, with 14,161 participants altogether. The paper defines the phenomena as describing “high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor.” The researchers found that the prevalence of impostor syndrome ranges from 10 to 80% of the population depending on the criteria cutoff used and is “associated with impaired job performance, job satisfaction, and burnout” that erodes the confidence of workers all the way up to CEOs.
It’s easier to ask for help framing a wall correctly than something you’re struggling with internally.
This phenomenon is described at length in pop culture but has been relatively taboo in construction.
“Machismo runs throughout the industry. You don’t want to show weakness, whether it’s the opioid crisis or mental health,” says Neil Bubel, who recently became president of both Traver Construction, in the Dallas metro area, and NARI of North Texas. “It’s easier to ask for help framing a wall correctly than something you’re struggling with internally. That’s something I would like to see soften a little bit.” According to Bubel, the attitude toward mental health is changing based on the round table discussions and NARI chapter meetings he attends.
“It is essential for business owners to name their feelings of impostorism,” says Elaina Jackson, senior managing director of leadership and strategy at the Fahrenheit Creative Group. “When you recognize your fears of being discovered to be a ‘fraud,’ you can take steps to overcome them.” Jackson, who has a doctorate in organizational leadership, completed research at Regent University on how impostor syndrome affects leadership. She says that people who feel the effects of impostor syndrome often worry about success to the point where productivity and confidence are affected.
Here are four ways business owners can overcome self-doubt.
Find a peer group
The 2019 study says that impostor syndrome is a vicious cycle as “individuals experiencing [it] often perceive themselves to be the ‘only one’ having these feelings, resulting in even greater isolation.”
“Everyone must know those impostor feelings are common among women and men, and at all levels of an organization,” Jackson says. “Humans are relational and naturally have a need for approval. It helps to know that your colleagues, partners, and employees may share similar feelings.”
Bubel says that joining local chapters of remodeling organizations can help combat feelings of isolation and offer opportunities to grow as a business owner. “NARI chapters have been instrumental for me in getting over impostor syndrome and just getting comfortable with everything.”
Bubel found a home in his peers that are both the same age as him and older, which helped build his confidence. “You’re not feeling like you’re alone, and you’re not trapped in your own head as much.” From these local chapter meetings, Bubel has guys that he can call up whenever with whatever questions he has. “In five minutes, you can bring them up to speed on what’s going on because they understand the nature of the business,” he says. When Bubel deals with younger remodelers seeking advice, he is honest with them. “I’ll take a step back and bring my thought process because they may be feeling the same way.”
Others agree. “Our industry has so many resources, associations, and educational opportunities from conventions to contractor support groups,” says Tom Kelly, president of Portland-based Neil Kelly. “My observation over the years is that the remodelers that have failed have been people who try to go at it alone too much.” By sharing their experiences and challenges with older remodelers, young business owners can get advice from people who have experienced the same thing and save themselves from making the same mistakes because they did not ask for help.
Seek out mentors, then long-term advisors
One simple action that leaders can take is to ask for feedback, according to Jackson. “Asking for an outside perspective can help confirm our success,” she says. “It can be affirming for us when other people can point to our strengths and how we have helped our businesses grow.”
There’s a difference between coaching and mentoring.
Allison Iantosca, owner and president of F. H. Perry in Hopkinton, Mass., is a huge proponent of fostering strong relationships with mentors and advisors to help set success benchmarks. Her father, the company’s founder, was her first mentor, but she expanded her support circle throughout the years. “Having a coach or mentor can be a really good counterbalance to all those voices that are constantly coming in saying, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, and this isn’t good enough.’”
Mentorships were crucial through Iantosca’s 30s as they pushed her to stay competitive. But now, she relies on coaches. “There’s a difference between coaching and mentoring,” Iantosca says. “Someone who coaches you is supporting you to come to your own realizations and do your own work about who you want to be versus a mentor who says, ‘This is how I did it.’” Now that Iantosca feels confident, coaches help her reorient herself. “When you’re managing impostor syndrome, you get caught up in your own world and your own four walls,” Iantosca says. Good coaches help leaders verbalize their ideas, goals, and values.
If one advisor or coach is good, 10 is better—if done right. It’s important to have the right people on your team. Kelly, who is the son of his company’s founder, converted his family board of directors into a professional board. Kelly, who combated self-doubt early in his career after taking the company over from his father, calls the board of directors “one of the best decisions” he has made as a leader, particularly because of its members’ diverse knowledge.
“Having a bunch of ‘yes’ people on your board is not a good thing,” he says. “You want people who are confident and capable of expressing their opinion.” Board members have expertise in a variety of areas such as finance, accounting, or marketing—one board member did marketing for Nike, a company known for brand recognition.
Although Kelly has a self-professed strong personality, he checks to make sure he is truly listening to his board and incorporating their advice in decisions. “I don’t necessarily have to follow their advice, but I need to make sure that I hear it,” he says.
Be vulnerable and honest about what you know
One common aspect of the impostor syndrome is when a leader feels as if they must have all the answers, or else they are not smart or worthy of leadership.
Bubel says this lack of honesty can cause serious harm to the person receiving advice by leading them down the wrong path. For him, it is much more productive to create a culture of honesty and humbleness. “If someone asks me for advice that I’m not a hundred percent sure of, I say, ‘Hey, let me take a couple of minutes, do a little research on it, and I’ll get back to you.’ Bubel says. He then guides the remodeler to resources or even other leaders in the industry. Even though it may be uncomfortable for a business owner to admit that they don’t have the answer, Bubel says it shows that you are humble, trustworthy, and do your due diligence, which enhances a company’s reputation in the industry.
A 2015 German study by M. Bechtoldt found that those with impostor syndrome struggled with task delegation, often preferring to delegate work to those who were less competent or to not delegate at all. Instead, Iantosca says it’s much more effective to surround yourself with a trustworthy team. She says the embarrassment of not understanding a subject 100% should not hinder a leader from asking questions or delegating work. She’s not afraid to clarify, ask questions, or admit that she doesn’t have all the answers.
Turn nervous energy into drive
A drive to succeed, a need to double-check and a tendency toward humility are not inherently bad things. Iantosca calls this the “positive side of the impostor syndrome.” Instead of fighting what comes naturally, she says a good leader can channel that nervous energy into more productive habits. “If a behavior wasn’t somehow of use, you wouldn’t have it,” Iantosca says. “And so my sense is that [the positive side of impostor syndrome] creates a framework for us to understand what success might look like external from ourselves.”
Iantosca doesn’t mean that people should use success to excuse insecurities. Instead, leaders can overcome insecurities through hard work and intentional reflection. Kelly agrees, noting that “somebody who doesn’t have a little self-doubt may be overconfident.”
This is all part of reframing one’s outlook. Jackson encourages business owners to create a culture of learning. “When we see mistakes as opportunities to learn, rather than exposing our weaknesses, we can move forward from them with confidence that we will do better next time.”