Overcoming 'Imposter syndrome': your voice does count

1 March 2012

So you want to make friends and influence people? Nurse leader JO ANN WALTON shares her top tips for making your voice count.

Successful women’s secret fears of being revealed as an imposter have been the topic of a number of books and articles in recent years.

The so-called ‘imposter syndrome’ deserves a column of its own, but in summary, a large number of successful women feel they may be unmasked as imposters at any moment. Despite their competence, they feel they are only a moment away from being revealed as inept, incompetent, and not deserving of the positions they have gained (the author of one book on the topic, Valerie Young, has an imposter syndrome quiz you can access on-line).

I think a great many excellent nurses suffer from this syndrome when it comes to voicing their opinions. They simply do not feel they are worthy or knowledgeable enough to be heard or that their opinions don’t count.

But – and it is a big but – it just isn’t true. We have good ideas, and we have gained our positions through hard work and effort. We have something to say. We really can make a difference to policy and practice, whether that’s on a small scale in our local workplace, at a broader organisational level, or even nationally or internationally.

On the other hand, most of us don’t really know where to start. To assist, here are ten tips for exerting influence:

Understand the relevant structures

It is very hard to exert influence in areas you don’t understand. Make it your business to understand the organisational structures and context in which you work and live. Who are the major players? What matters to them? Who are they connected to? Where do you fit?

Learn how to read big documents

If you want to make changes, you have to understand what’s going on. This often involves a lot of reading of minutes, reports, reviews and so on. There are tricks to scanning big documents – you do not always need to read every word. Take a speed-reading course.

Listen to Morning Report

National Radio’s Morning Report programme is probably the easiest and quickest way for you to understand what is ‘hot’ every day. You will hear news and opinion. You will also know what the decision-makers are debating and what is worrying them right now. Politicians of all kinds listen to Morning Report, so you are getting closer to knowing what they know and knowledge is power.

Be memorable and be professional

No matter how shy or how bold you are, you have to make a good impression. Find a way to be memorable, but keep it professional. Some people do this without any effort. Some people similarly fail without trying. Show you are interested in others and speak well of them. Tell someone important how much you appreciated something they said or did. Be specific. Watch their reaction carefully. It can take a lot of courage to practice this art, but once begun, it can be exhilarating.

‘Happen upon’ people

Someone once told me he collected prime ministers. He was in ongoing competition with one of his friends. They scored one point for every prime minister they bumped into (literally, I am sorry to say). Their scores were low, but their aim was high. Try to catch the attention of people you might not ordinarily meet. Watch out for events in which they can be ‘happened upon’. Retirement functions are good – and openings. Of course, you need to know whom you have caught and what you want to say (see first four points above). Don’t pin them in a corner and tell them your life story. Just be memorable and move on.

Don’t be the problem: solve the problem

This is one of the secrets to a happy life. It is also where all your hard work until now comes to fruition. Provide a solution.

Do the maths

Work out, and show, how your solution will be effective and worthwhile. It always helps to show how it will save money –or if your idea will cost money, show what the other payoffs will be.

Numbers matter

It is not enough just to do the sums for yourself. You need to count, measure, analyse, document, graph, and explain. A great many potential plans are sunk without trace because the hard data to back them up is not provided. Numbers count in the persuasion stakes – even if your ‘brilliant’ figures are not accepted immediately.

Be in the right place at the right time

Armed with all your homework, you must wait until the time is right. Some of this is luck and some is clever engineering. Over time, you will develop a sixth sense about the right time and the right place. You know your material, you understand the context, you have a solution backed up by data, and furthermore, they know you. All the patience and preparation has brought you here. It’s time to show your hand.

Control the pen

It is a strange fact of life that the person who writes the minutes/letters/reports recalls things so very much more clearly than those who simply read them. Take advantage of this final point of influence.

Good luck! If we bump into each other sometime, please say hello. I would love to hear how you are getting on.

Jo Ann Walton is Professor of Nursing at Victoria University of Wellington and an elected member of the Nursing Council. The article is based on her keynote address to the Australian and New Zealand Nurse