The Empress Has No Clothes: An Interview with Joyce Roche

When jumping into the abyss, it's natural for self-doubt to creep in. After all, even in an era of Big Data, do we have anything even remotely close to near certainty? Of course not. It's completely common and even natural to wonder how things will turn out, and even if we should take the plunge.

To this end, I recently sat down with Joyce Roché to talk about impostor syndrome, the subject of her new book, The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success, and a host of other subjects.

PS: How would you define "Imposter Syndrome"?

JR: Impostor syndrome is the fear and self-doubt that causes people to question their abilities--even in the face of success--and to constantly search for external validation. Simply put, it makes it difficult to recognize and celebrate one's strengths and accomplishments.

PS: In your own experience and that of other leaders you interviewed for your book, what are some of the most common symptoms or signs of impostor syndrome?

JR: The external signs are working long hours, over-preparing, feeling stressed out, and sometimes compromising one's personal life. Internal signs are fear and doubt, especially when presented with new opportunities such as a promotion or a new level of responsibility, which triggers the fear of failure, concerns about fitting in, and doubt about having the same level of intellectual capacity as one's peers.

PS: How is impostor syndrome different from just being insecure? How does it relate to one's relative level of success and accomplishment, for example?

JR: Those who suffer from impostor syndrome tend to be very successful, while those who are highly insecure are likely to be less accomplished. The impostor syndrome, which is at heart a social anxiety, drives those who suffer from it forward; insecurity, on the other hand, tends to make people shy away from taking risks. An insecure person may stay in a job she has outgrown because she lacks confidence in her abilities. A person who has impostor feelings will work harder and harder to show others that she can compete at a higher level and prove that she deserves new levels of responsibility.

PS: Why are women, members of minority groups, and people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds especially susceptible?

JR: The impostor syndrome is driven by a fear of not being accepted or acceptable to a peer group. In settings where you are different from the majority of people, the concerns about not fitting in or being able to compete become more intense. The irony is that success constantly puts you in situations where you are among people different from you.

PS: At what point in your career arc did your impostor syndrome hinder you most. Why?

JR: The impostor fears had a greater impact on me early in my career. As I entered corporate America, I faced many unknowns. Being a woman of color in business at a time when very few women were in positions of power, I had to learn by trial and error how I was supposed to perform. This made me so afraid of being wrong or "looking dumb" that I stayed quiet in meetings. I wanted to make sure everything I said was perfect before I would chance saying anything, and often found myself hearing a guy saying what I had been thinking but was too afraid to say. I did learn fairly early on that my being quiet and not voicing opinions only served to create doubts in the minds of others about my abilities. So I faced the fear and began taking risks to counter any questions about my abilities and me.

PS: What were a couple of your own "aha" moments? When did you suddenly became aware of your real value and competence? What triggered those positive realizations?

JR: The first time I remember becoming fully aware of my abilities and competencies was when I was faced with the possibility of being overlooked for a promotion I knew I was qualified for. Senior management felt more "comfortable" with a white male colleague, and so to advocate for myself I had to compare my abilities and accomplishments to those of the "heir apparent" and of another male peer. At that point, I recognized the full extent of my experience and my value to the company.

The second "aha" moment came when after almost 19 years with Avon, I realized that I had hit a real glass ceiling and that if I wanted to move to the next level of senior management I would probably have to leave the company. At that point, I suddenly felt a level of comfort in who I was and what I had achieved. All the success and recognition I had received over the years seemed to have sunk in without my noticing. I now believed in my abilities and management skill enough to step out to find the opportunity I felt I was ready to take on.