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Conquering the impostor syndrome to claim the joy, zest, and power of your success


Learn how the impostor syndrome can impact women when negotiating and learn Roche's suggestions for addresses these issues
By | Nov 05, 2013

 I’ve negotiated with some formidable women over the years and have found women to be exceptionally smart negotiators—particularly in terms of managing their emotions, understanding their opponents, and being self-aware.

But when overthinking crosses over into self-consciousness and self-doubt, the result is the impostor syndrome, a topic author andbusiness leader Joyce Roché writes about in a new business memoir,The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).

Roché has been a trailblazer in the corporate world for 25 years, as Avon’s first African American female vice president; COO of Carson Products Company, now part of L’Oreal; the former CEO of the national nonprofit Girls Inc.; and a board member on four Fortune 500 companies. She’s received widespread recognition throughout her career—for example, she was featured on the cover of Fortune, and has won numerous professional awards, including the Distinguished Alumna Award from Columbia University Women in Business.

Yet despite her overwhelming success, Roché admitted that early in her career she, like many women, suffered from the feeling that she was a fraud, wasn’t deserving of her success, and wasn’t really equal to her business peers.

I asked Roché how she thinks that kind of fear impacts a woman’s effectiveness in negotiations. “I believe fear of failure, especially for those suffering with the impostor syndrome, can lead to being willing to accept less than what you actually want,” she said. “The concern that some flaw or lack will be highlighted if you push too hard can cause those with impostor syndrome to settle for ‘good enough’ rather than pushing for what is achievable.” Once people who experience the impostor syndrome learn to validate themselves and to embrace their worth, she said they become more comfortable with negotiating.

At the Camp Negotiation Institute, our trainees learn how to counter self-doubt by following a highly structured system that helps them be prepared, create and follow an agenda for every interaction, and have a mission and purpose to guide them every step of the way.

Roché said women with the impostor syndrome can overcome self-doubt by “understanding what is possible—doing some research and getting some benchmark data.” Then, she added, honestly assess your assets. “It’s a good idea to talk with someone you trust and who knows your experience level and accomplishments to help keep you from discounting yourself.” Finally, determine upfront at what point you are willing to walk away.

One of the traps people with the impostor syndrome fall in to when negotiating is sizing up their opponent—he’s better educated, dressed better, higher up on the corporate ladder, and so on. Doing this puts one at a disadvantage. “Comparing your inside to someone else’s outside always puts you at a disadvantage, because it gets you engaged with your own fears rather than with facts and people,” said Roché.

She advises women to honestly assess their opponent. “While he or she might have real advantages, ask yourself what flaws or gaps do they have? No one is perfect. Then do the same exercise about yourself. Take an inventory of your skills: What are your positives, and what are your gaps?” Realize that if you are negotiating with an opponent, chances are you both got to this place from similar skill sets or experiences, Roché said.

Roché eventually calmed that voice that caused her to question her abilities and worth by learning to ask herself: “What did this person or organization use to determine that I should be able to be in this position or to do this job, what evidence did they use?” Then she used that same “objective evidence” to calm her fears and to take the emotional reaction out of the equation.

I wondered if the impostor syndrome might give women any advantage in a negotiation. Roche replied that “women with impostor syndrome do extensive preparation—over preparing is one of the key characteristics of the impostor syndrome. Therefore, they have probably researched every aspect of the subject before going into the negotiation and are prepared to provide extensive rationale for their position.” Another quality she mentioned is that someone with the impostor syndrome believes others consider her less of an opponent. Because of this, “she feels she must do whatever is necessary to demonstrate her worth—and this drive will often lead to success.”

For women who find themselves in a negotiation situation, Roché advises: “Spend the time to know your worth and internalize this. Ask yourself: What experience do you have? What have you accomplished? What are you bringing to the party? Next , ask yourself: What is the worst thing that can happen?” Going into the negotiation having already acknowledged your fears and understanding the emotional reactions you might have to others or to the situation allows you to calm your emotions and keep the goal you desire in focus.