‘So what do you do?’

Sarah Dale gives a personal view on overthrowing a collective impostor syndrome

So what do you do?’ The question always leads me to take a deep breath before embarking on an answer. At a local networking event, or meeting friends of friends, my answer is something like: ‘I’m an occupational psychologist. I work mainly with senior managers and professionals on a one-to-one basis, and have developed my own coaching programme. How about you?’ (I’m usually quite keen to deflect the question away from me.)

But if I’m at something like the Division of Occupational Psychology conference, my reply takes on a more hesitant tone. ‘Oh, you know, I do a bit of coaching and 360 and stuff like that. Only part-time, I’m busy with the kids and we’ve just built an extension and that took up all my time last year because the builders went bust and then we got married in October and, erm, do you know where the toilets are?’

Why such a difference? My career hasn’t taken a straight line. I left school in the early eighties to do a psychology degree at Nottingham University. Daunted by the prospect of years of postgraduate study and supervision that becoming a psychologist of any sort required, I somehow ended up doing even more by joining what was then Deloitte, Haskins and Sells (now PriceWaterhouseCoopers) to train as a chartered accountant. I certainly wasn’t alone in that abrupt career decision – our intake was full of history and psychology graduates, many of whom have since made career changes, so I know teachers, nurses, even smallholders who are ex-accountants. None of us have ever regretted it though. The business training and professional consultancy skills that the experience gave us are transferable to just about every environment, and gaining chartered status really did feel like an achievement after all those weekends and evenings sacrificed to mastering the finer points of tax law and nominal ledgers.

After some years there, approaching 30 and considering my options, I took the plunge and left to do a full-time MSc in occupational psychology. It felt like a new lease of life. I had spent the accountancy years working with a huge variety of client organisations, and occupational psychology started to explain what was going on in many of them. My answer to ‘What is occupational psychology?’ (for those who aren’t so easily deflected when I’ve given my first answer to ‘What do you do?’), is usually an only slightly flippant ‘Anything to do with people and work’. I am particularly interested in the well-being of people at work as it relates to how they make sense of what they do and how they contribute to their organisation and/or their world – but, to be frank, that is a huge and vague area to explain to people. Hard to describe but endlessly interesting to me. The accountancy training isn’t wasted either – how we measure performance both individually and at an organisational level underlies most of our work practices in a Western capitalist economy so it’s always there, even as silent assumptions that influence how we work and what we do.

To bring it together, and apply these interests in as coherent a way as I could manage, I developed a coaching programme which I have called Creating Focus (see www.creatingfocus.org). It consists of face-to-face coaching sessions, written feedback via e-mail and a series of exercises structured around a three-stage programme (taking stock; clarifying direction; sustaining progress). I piloted it with ten senior professionals from a variety of organisations with greater success than I had dared to anticipate.

A couple of years on now, some of those participants even now partly attribute their successes (becoming a professor, being promoted to head teacher, setting up a successful architecture practice, being invited to international conferences) to the programme.

I am delighted when I hear these things, though I immediately wonder if that means I am doing this for my own gratification, or – heaven forbid – allowing myself to get sucked into attribution errors left, right and centre. It feels like ‘real’ psychology, but would it stand scrutiny?

I have brought together a whole range of interests into the programme – Myers Briggs, 360 feedback, positive psychology, mindfulness, some cognitive behavioural ideas. In addition, I have widened it out to help participants view their work and performance in a realistic context – family, friends, food, drink, sleep, exercise – it all adds to or takes away from work performance and the well-being (or not) associated with that. I write a series of short reflective pieces for interested participants to show them some snippets of research and thinking on topics ranging from food (for the body!) to e-mail use and procrastination. I am working on bringing these together into a blog and a book called Keeping Your Spirits Up (www.keepingyourspiritsup.org.uk). I am inspired by books such as The Skilled Helper by Egan, and Relational Coaching by Erik De Haan. I am hosting the regional Special Group in Coaching Psychology group for peer supervision, and doing CPD activities rarely feels like a chore but instead is energising and useful (which is more than I used to say about CPD as an accountant).

So far, over 50 people have completed the Creating Focus programme. None have dropped out, and many cite lasting benefits. Looking back over the comments, I often find ones like this:
‘It has awakened the strength that was dormant in me… In the past, I used to fear that I would get confused… There was always this fear that someone might out stage me. Because I felt like that about myself, there were times where I felt confused and out of control during meetings. Not any more!’

I am struck by how many (not all) the people I have been working with seem to demonstrate a form of impostor syndrome (see p.380). All highly qualified, very experienced, but with a nagging doubt somewhere that their weaknesses would overwhelm any positive strengths they knew they had. And I myself react like this in the company of other psychologists. To begin with, I thought this must be because I had changed career and was therefore a ‘newbie’. But I have been chartered and running my own business for some years now. I was struck by Antonia Dietmann’s address as incoming Chair at the Division of Occupational Psychology conference, where she urged people to ‘Get our work out there’.

Her exhortation to really explain to family and friends what an occupational psychologist does is also thought-provoking. My husband is a civil and structural engineer; I can see and touch the buildings he has designed. My father was a graphic designer; on my way to school, I used to pass the theatre posters he had designed. I used to be an accountant; I can trace through Companies House (if the desire overcame me) the records for businesses that I helped to audit. All chartered professions, like ours.

But occupational psychology is less tangible (apart from psychometrics perhaps, which is probably a large part of any public understanding of what we do). My own feeling is that occupational psychologists can be many different things (as can engineers, designers and accountants), but I am slightly intimidated by a sense that what I do isn’t academic enough.

The academic/practitioner divide has been endlessly debated, and I don’t want to add to that, except to wonder if in and of itself it produces a kind of collective impostor syndrome. There are – rightly – some strong opinions in the profession about what counts as good work in the field. Challenge is good, but somewhere along the line I wonder if this takes on a more dismissive tone, which tends to undermine confidence. At the DOP conference, it’s not uncommon to hear papers being introduced apologetically if they follow a keynote with strong messages about methods or approaches that are dismissed as not up to the mark. On the other hand, papers following an equally sound and well-researched but more enthusiastic keynote (for example, the excellent keynote in Brighton on the topic of trust by Donald Ferrin) tend to be much more confidently presented.

As one of my participants on the Creating Focus programme reflected:
‘My leadership skills are much stronger because I have stopped questioning my own abilities and started being confident to use the strengths I have rather than focusing on my weaknesses.’

Maybe I, and possibly our profession as a whole, should take note. Physician heal thyself With that confidence, surely we will naturally define our work out in the ‘real’ world. There is more than enough to get our teeth into. Every single day, I hear something on radio or TV, overhear a conversation or read something that is absolutely to do with people and work (or these days, lack of work too). All the time people are trying to make sense of what their contribution is, how they will or do make a living, how they keep their sanity (or don’t) in some of the insane work situations that we manage to put ourselves and each other into. Occupational psychologists could be commenting on radio and TV every day. After all, economists are and theirs isn’t exactly a tangible field either.

I thought about role models whilst I was writing this. Two people spring to mind: Professor Tanya Byron (a clinical psychologist) and Gerry Robinson (a one time accountant). I admire both for their style of working with people – calm, thoughtful, challenging, sympathetic, passionate and accessible. Feet on the ground at an individual level as well as operating at a policy level too. In Tanya Byron’s case a very accessible academic – her website alone seems to be an example of how to cross the academic/practitioner divide if there is one.

The only reason I know of these people is through television. I think, as a profession, we could benefit from such a presence ourselves. Why haven’t we already got that? It could be because it’s a rare person who is telegenic enough (I watch Tanya Byron and weep), and I believe both she and Gerry Robinson had links with the media in the first place. So – who you know is inevitably part of that (would one of them mentor one of us?). Also, I think topics need to be presented in a digestible way, which is an area both my role models are extremely good at. But could it also be that we need to shake off the impostor syndrome and focus on our strengths? Isn’t that one aspect of what occupational psychologists do?



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