Are you a high achiever who constantly feels like a fraud? If so, you may be suffering from imposter syndrome, a feeling of inadequacy despite evidence to the contrary. This condition is surprisingly common among successful people and can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, and a lack of self-confidence. Join Dr. Kevin Sansberry II as he talks to Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin about imposter syndrome and how to manage it. Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin is a licensed psychologist and executive coach focusing on leadership development, diversity, equity, and inclusion. He is a co-founder and partner of Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting LLP. He regularly consults with companies in the private sector, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations on leadership, diversity, equity, and inclusion, anti-racism, impostor syndrome, team cohesion, and stress management.
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Imposter Syndrome And The Impact Of Toxic Leadership With Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin
Welcome to the show. Dr. Richard Orbe-Austin is a licensed psychologist and executive coach with a focus on leadership development and diversity, equity and inclusion. He is a Cofounder and partner of Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting, LLP, a career and executive coaching consultancy where he primarily works with executives, senior leaders and entrepreneurs. He is the author of the book Own Your Greatness: Overcome Imposter Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life. He co-authored it with his partner, Dr. Lisa Orbe-Austin. In our episode, we discuss the impact of imposter syndrome and specifically how imposter syndrome is impacted in the face of toxic leadership behavior in toxic organization culture. Let’s get to it.
How are you?
I am very well. Thank you.
It is great to be able to talk to you, especially as a psychologist but also as a Black psychologist, to hear your perspective on toxic leadership, the workplace, and its impact on people. I am really excited about that.
I am excited and thrilled to be talking to you about this topic. This is a topic near and dear to my heart.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. I want to hear about you and your background.
My name is Dr. Richard Orbe-Austin. I am the Cofounder and partner of Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting, which is a career and executive coaching consultancy based in New York City. I am a psychologist by training. Most of the work that I do is focused on executive coaching and consulting. I work with organizations on issues related to leadership development, imposter syndrome, diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racist practice. I have been doing this work for many years in practice with my partner, Dr. Lisa Orbe-Austin.Toxic leadership in the workplace is a mental health problem. Click To Tweet
I tend to talk about in my past life, I was in a higher ed leadership for a number of years. A lot of the work that I have done is based on understanding how people make an impact in different spaces. I have worked in mental health care. I have worked in higher ed. I work with a variety of different organizations trying to improve their functioning and reduce their toxic cultures and toxic leadership. Again, I am thrilled to be talking about this topic with you because sometimes I feel like it does not get enough light in day-to-day practice.
One of the things you might not know about me is I worked in higher ed leadership too. I spent almost a decade in higher ed leadership too. With that being said, being on a toxic leadership podcast is a little different than other leadership programs because I do not like to stray away from difficult topics that impact people, especially marginalized. What is your experience with toxic leadership in any way? How do you connect to the topic?
When I thought about this and reflected upon it, I realized that, unfortunately, most of my experience and working for others was working with toxic leaders. I can have one particular example of a non-toxic leader. I always talk about my first time straight out of college. I was very happy and excited to be in the workplace. I ran right into a toxic leader. Someone who felt like the only way to get anything done was through yelling, screaming, and bullying. I never had that experience of an adult yelling at another adult in a workplace, so it was jarring to see that. Subsequently, from there, once I left that I, unfortunately, witnessed a lot of other toxic leadership styles.
Everything from prove-it-to-me bosses where it is like nothing is ever good enough to erratic bosses not recognizing how that person will show up any given day. One day, they love you. The next day, they are irritable and they are trying to say how bad you are. There is a lot of experience from the lived experience of witnessing, observing and experiencing that toxic leadership style. One of the things that I am passionate about is working with my clients to not become toxic leaders and if they encounter them, how to make sure that they are able to create a space for themselves where they are safe. If not, decide that they need to transition.
One of the things you had me thinking about as you discussed your impact is toxic leadership in the workplace is a mental health problem. One of the things that I think about with that is the fact that a lot of leaders in the organization are not seeking the mental health and the support that they need. Their self-esteem issues or depression or anxiety issues that they are dealing with are now projected on the people who report to them at times.
I wonder if we took that approach in the workplace, which is more compassionate, it is not like, “You are a bad boss. Let me get you a coach and we fix it.” It is more like, “We want to help you with the source and getting you a psychologist.” People have to opt to do that. You cannot force somebody. If it was more geared toward, “We want you to talk to somebody about anything you are going through.” I wonder how that would shift how they show up in the workplace after they get back. I am curious.
To understand when you show up at work, you show up as a whole person. When you are dealing with all these other issues, they are bound to come out at work. If you are having marital problems, if you are having other family concerns, if you are dealing with anxiety or depression, it will show up at work. We do a poor job as a society of recognizing that we need to be able to intervene and help someone deal with their whole selves. To me, it was very interesting. I had done this little poll on LinkedIn to ask this question, “Do you feel like toxic leaders are born or are they made?” The vast majority said that they are made. Understanding that, it says someone could come into the workplace with good intentions, but to your point, they do not have the tools.
They do not have the support to understand how to manage leadership and what that means in a healthy manner. If we are able to recognize that we can make an impact in preventing toxic leaders from being born, that is where we want to be able to invest resources. Unfortunately, we do not. It is only when something has gone wrong. There is a lawsuit and there is some sort of complaint, then it is, “We need to remediate this person because they are toxic.” A long time coming, you may have known that, but you were not trying to support them.
I love that notion of examining whether the toxic leadership behavior is born or is it made because, as you know, people use words like narcissism a lot. Clinical narcissism is 1% to 2% in the population. It is super low. When we are talking about like, “You are a narcissist,” odds are, they are not. Odds are, they are just a jerk. It makes me think about even with individuals who clinically have narcissistic traits, even psychopathy, the environment still does matter for those traits to manifest. We do a lot of determinism when it comes to personality, “You are never going to change.” When in reality, if the environment shifts, that person has a great chance of shifting. We just do not put enough effort into it.
They would need to shift because the environment is shifting. I give the example of one of the most toxic leaders that I ever worked for in higher ed. It was someone who would physically bully people and throw things off their desks. I watched this. I was working in that setting as a graduate student. I did not need to stay there. I was passing through, but I felt it was important to let the leadership of that institution know what was happening. In my naivete, I was like, “I am going to write a letter to the dean and outline all these things that this person has been doing.” There is going to be some change. That
That person not only did not get reprimanded, they got promoted. You cannot say you do not know the system in a way. Sometimes we do not want to talk about it. The system, in a way, benefits from these toxic leaders for either being able to enforce a particular role or being able to do other things that the system wants. That benefit outweighs the mental well-being of everyone else, so unfortunately. That intervention on the systems level, as you said, is the key aspect to those.Imposter syndrome is the notion of you feeling like you are a fraud. You have difficulty internalizing your skills and accomplishments, and ultimately, you find it difficult to take any praise or positive feedback. Click To Tweet
Your dean was nice. Let’s say, you have a nice dean and they are pretty personable and all that, but are they so nice and personable when they allow the stuff to happen that they know what is happening? That happens in too many organizations where it is like, “This person is bringing in the money. They have the lab. They have the research, so we are going to let them run them up and ignore it.” That is harmful in the greatest impact that it has on your already marginalized employees at times. One of the things you talk about a lot is imposter syndrome, which I love that topic. I want to hear how does that connect to toxic leadership? How does that affect it?
When I talk about imposter syndrome, I talk about the notion of you feeling like you are a fraud. You feel that the only way you are successful is through luck or through a relationship. You have difficulty internalizing your skills or accomplishments. Ultimately, you find it difficult to take in any type of praise or positive feedback. When you are struggling with imposter syndrome, you are trying to hold on to your job.
You are trying to make as good of an impact and keep your head down as possible. When you run into a toxic leader, then it causes some of that imposter syndrome to be triggered. Those types of leaders may either feel like, “You need to keep proving to me that you are good enough,” or they withhold praise. They never give you any particular understanding of what you are doing.
If they are perfectionistic, they feel like any mistake is punished. All the levels and types of toxic leadership are very triggering to people with imposter syndrome, which causes them to feel like, “I am not good enough. Maybe I should just take the abuse in this job because I clearly am not good enough to find something better.” It causes you to feel like, “I need to overwork, I need to keep doing more,” to please this toxic leader. You are unable to feel like you are confident enough to leave the toxic work culture and find something better.
That is interesting because what it has me thinking about is the fact that when you think about imposter syndrome, one of the key tenants is, “I do not belong here. I got here because I was lucky.” I will use us as an example. We are both Black men with Doctorate degrees. Were you prevalent when you were studying? Did you see a lot of you’s?
With that being said, we go back to the environment. The things you see around you are, “You are lucky. You are different.” Those are the signals. On top of that, you might have a boss who is feeding that imposter syndrome by being perfectionistic, “You are never good enough.” I cannot imagine the impact of the environment and the boss. What do you think about that?
This is exactly what we talk about when we talk about the double impact of imposter syndrome on BIPOC and other marginalized communities. There is double impact, meaning, internally, you feel like an imposter, but then externally, they are accusing the environment, to your point, that says, “You do not belong here. You should not be here.” The double impact carries great weight. It causes you to overwork, which can lead to burnout. It causes anxiety. It triggers anxiety and depression. It makes you feel like you will never be good enough.
Oftentimes, what I talk about is toxic work cultures benefit from people with imposter syndrome because those individuals will overwork and will stress themselves just to feel like they fit in. They love that work output because they are like, “I do not even have to pay them more. They are going to keep working.” They do not want them to overcome imposter syndrome because when they do, they recognize that, “I deserve better than this. I should not even be here. I need to go.” That is the weight of it when we talk about that double impact.
Let’s flip the script a little bit. It had me thinking about imposter syndrome. The toxic leader could also have imposter syndrome. Therefore, they are toxic. They have these toxic behaviors now. Let’s think about it from that perspective. The boss is a female leader in a male-dominated organization, which is most organizations, unfortunately, or they were the youngest kid and their birth order. All that stuff matters. Whatever the reasoning is for the pathology here, they show up super perfectionistic. They show up like nothing is ever good enough. The anxiety is coming out of their pores. What does that look like as it relates to help for that toxic leader? How would you approach that?Toxic leaders often have imposter syndrome because they don't feel good enough. They need to be able to overwork themselves and others and tend to micromanage because they fear any mistake in their direct reports will reflect… Click To Tweet
This is so critical. We talk a great deal about this in the book as well. Toxic leaders oftentimes, have imposter syndrome because of the fact that they do not feel like they are good enough. They need to be able to overwork themselves and others. Nothing is good enough in terms of being perfectionistic. Their work product and the work product of others are not good enough. They tend to micromanage because they are afraid that any mistake in their direct reports will reflect poorly on them.
They are not able to be as creative or take risks because they feel like taking a risk may mean that, “I am going to be exposed as a fraud.” The intervention is, first and foremost, to give them the language and the understanding of imposter syndrome and what that is to allow them to recognize that they have skills. They have talents. They have an ability. The reason that they are there is because they have earned it, helping them to manage a leadership style that is a lot more open, collaborative, and takes risks. They do not need to be perfect to enable them to feel safe enough to lean into their accomplishments, their skills, and their talents.
It is bringing awareness. Ensuring that that person is aware of things that they could have seen, but for whatever reason, they are blind to it. That makes a lot of sense. As you think about the organization, let’s say I am your dean or I am some leader in your organization who has employees that wrote a letter. How do we counter toxic leaders and toxic work cultures, both systemically and interpersonally?
When we think about systems that create or sustain or enable toxic work culture, those command and control systems say, “The only reason people are here is to deliver something for the institution. We do not see them as whole actual beings. The only thing we care about is the bottom line.” When we were in higher ed, it is how much money we are taking in, how many students can we enroll or recruit, or how much money was coming in through the research grants? Looking at, ultimately, what are the metrics of success and shifting that?
Legitimately thinking about the quality of life, thinking about retention and why people stay and thinking about creating a sense of belonging. When you just lean into the hard numbers, you are going to then allow those who are toxic or bringing in resources to stay. That is one. When we think about it from this systems lens, how do we create a psychologically safe environment by shifting the metrics of success and bringing in the notion that the people who work there are not robots, that are whole beings that you want to actually be engaged and satisfied?
From that interpersonal level, it is being able to recognize that oftentimes people who, as unbelievable as it may seem, are toxic may not even realize some of the behaviors they are demonstrating. We are giving them some level of support related to coaching, related to training, communication style and interpersonal engagement style, helping them to learn about imposter syndrome. Giving them a sense of, “What does it mean to be a good leader?” This is something I know that you know well. People who rise to leadership have gotten no leadership training. They are just great individual contributors.
The next natural step is for them to take on a team or some direct reports, but they have no clue that the skills that made them successful as an individual contributor are not the same that are going to make them successful as a leader. Helping people to understand what healthy, effective leadership is, being able to name it, to help them recognize it and to understand that it is a constant work in progress. It does take new skill development, which will also be central when we think about helping people who may exhibit some toxic behaviors.
Based on what you are saying, it made me think about why, like, “Some people would be good at leading robots.” I just thought about that. That is probably their skillset. Maybe they need to lean into that somewhere. As we think about how we can leave people better off, I want to transition and ask you for some words of wisdom. Based on your experience, knowledge, and expertise, what words of wisdom would you want to leave our readers with?
I talk about how to counter toxic leaders and toxic work culture. One of the things I talk about is when you work as hard for yourself as you do for others, you will be unstoppable. What I mean by that is I am not suggesting you need to become an entrepreneur, but what I am saying is even if you are working for someone else, make sure your needs are first. In toxic work cultures or working for a toxic boss, the needs of the culture and the needs of the boss become the thing that you center your life and your work on. When you come to an understanding that, “I know how to work hard for that culture or for that boss, but am I working as hard for myself?”
People stay stuck because they feel like, “I do not know if I will be able to transition. I am not sure if I have what it takes,” but when you look at, from an objective standpoint, your work product and what you give to others, you give that same energy to yourself in service of the things that you want, your goals, and your dreams. You will be unstoppable. You will be able to recognize that, “No particular organization can keep me stuck.”
It is like you are your own advocate. Nobody else is going to do it.
So much of our work society is based on fear and scarcity. We are afraid and we want stability. The scarcity piece is there is nothing else out there that is better than this. Those two pillars keep people feeling like, “I need to remain in whatever toxic situation.” If we can help people remove that fear and this notion of scarcity, that is where we are able to give them the freedom to take risks and to bet on themselves a lot more.
How can people reach you? How can we learn more about you? I know you have a book coming out. How can we connect with you?
I am excited to say that we have a new book coming out. The first book is called Own Your Greatness: Overcome Imposter Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life. It is out. You can get it through all sellers. It is a book that talks about how to overcome imposter syndrome. It is a focused model that we run through that enables people to deal with some of these imposter feelings. The follow-up to that book is coming out in October 2022. It is called Your Unstoppable Greatness: Break Free from Imposter Syndrome, Cultivate Your Agency, and Achieve Your Ultimate Career Goals. Part of this book is focused on the next steps once you overcome imposter syndrome and you recognize that you deserve better, but if you are still in a toxic work culture, it talks about how to identify toxic bosses and toxic work cultures and then it gives clear steps as to how to transition and/or to counter that.
That is something we are super excited about because when we came out with the first book, people said, “I have overcome imposter syndrome, but I still feel like I am not happy because I am in this difficult work situation.” We recognize, back to your notion of the system, we needed to figure out how to help people intervene on systems. That is what this book is focused on. I am very active on Instagram. If you look up my handle, it is @DrRichOrbeAustin. You can find me talking about imposter syndrome and toxic leadership challenges. I am also very active on LinkedIn, so you can look me up there as well. I am always happy to engage with folks about these issues that are near and dear to my heart.
We might have to look at doing a joint Instagram live or something too. I want to thank you for this conversation. You have provided a lot of great and helpful tips as it relates to imposter syndrome. I am not sure if I have yet talked about imposter syndrome and toxic leadership on this show, so I appreciate that.
It was my pleasure to come on with you and talk about this important topic.
Thank you. Thank all of you for joining the show.
- Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting
- Own Your Greatness: Overcome Imposter Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life
- Your Unstoppable Greatness: Break Free from Imposter Syndrome, Cultivate Your Agency, and Achieve Your Ultimate Career Goals
- @DrRichOrbeAustin – Instagram
- LinkedIn – Dr. Richard Orbe-Austin
- @ToxicLeadershipPodcast – Instagram
- @ToxicLeaderShow – Twitter
- KEVRA: The Culture Company
About Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin
Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin is a licensed psychologist and executive coach, with a focus on leadership development and diversity, equity & inclusion. He is a co-founder and partner of Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting LLP, a career and executive coaching consultancy, where he works primarily with executives, senior leaders, and entrepreneurs. Dr. Orbé-Austin is a former Chief Diversity Officer at Baruch College-City University of New York, where he evaluated the recruitment & hiring strategies for faculty & staff searches, trained search committees to ensure inclusive & equitable practices, and served as a thought partner to the President to improve the college’s cultural climate. In addition to that role, Dr. Orbé-Austin was the Founding Director of NYU’s Graduate Student Career Development Center, and is a Past President of the NY Association of Black Psychologists.
He regularly consults to companies in the private sector, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations on issues related to leadership, diversity, equity, & inclusion, anti-racism, impostor syndrome, team cohesion, and stress management.
Dr. Orbé-Austin’s views on leadership, diversity, equity, & inclusion, and racial trauma are regularly sought by the media, and he has appeared in a variety of outlets including Forbes, Fast Company, Diversity Executive, Thrive Global, Today.com, theGrio, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Dr. Orbé-Austin has been a keynote and invited speaker at various national conferences. He recently gave a TEDx talk entitled “The Impostor Syndrome Paradox: Unleashing the Power of You.”
He earned his doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education and his BA He earned his doctorate in Psychology from NYU. He is the author of the book Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life (Ulysses Press, 2020), co-authored with his partner, Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin. The goal of the book is to provide a systematic formula to eliminate impostor syndrome, and to assist readers to own their talents and power, in order to fully realize their career goals. Their book was a finalist for the Foreword INDIES Book Award.
His upcoming book Your Unstoppable Greatness: Break Free From Impostor Syndrome, Cultivate Your Agency, and Achieve Your Ultimate Career Goals, also co-authored with his partner, to be released in October 2022, will examine how to counter toxic leaders and toxic work cultures, in order to keep impostor syndrome permanently defeated, and to achieve your career & life dreams.