Imposter Syndrome: The Facts

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What is Imposter Syndrome?

Kate recently shared a story of the first time she heard the phrase ‘imposter syndrome,’ recalling an event she was speaking at. She mentioned how despite most people will, at some point in their lives, experience feelings of self-doubt, most of us think it is unique to us and not nearly as common as it actually is.

Imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable condition, but a term used to describe when someone feels like a fraud, like they aren’t achieving as much or as highly as they want to, or feel they should, and doubts themselves. Often, it occurs despite someone objectively being accomplished or successful. Someone experiencing imposter syndrome may struggle to perceive their personal accomplishments as being the result of their own actions, abilities, and competencies, instead misattributing them to external factors such as luck and influence from others. Additionally, they might see personal setbacks or challenges as evidence of their inadequacies and shortcomings, interpreting such events as confirmation that they are an imposter. Of course, it is an important concept to understand in everyday life, but particularly in the workplace because it is associated with increased rates of depression and anxiety, weakened job performance, reduced job satisfaction and increased burnout among employees.

Who Experiences Imposter Syndrome?

Studies on imposter syndrome are incredibly varied, with research suggesting prevalence can range anywhere from 9% to 82%, depending on how it is screened, the study’s inclusion criteria and the group included. For example, rates are particularly high among ethnic minorities. Additionally, it is thought to be most common in high-achieving people. More research is needed to fully understand the relationship between imposter syndrome, and age and experience.

So far, much of the research has used college (university) students as participants, however this group of individuals experience imposter syndrome in an interesting way. Their fears are typically rooted in not wanting to appear imperfect to others and are related to preserving social status. However, imposter syndrome is also likely to be heightened when facing a new or unfamiliar challenge, such as starting a first job. Therefore, it makes sense that rates in students may be higher given this unchartered territory.

Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace

People with imposter syndrome are generally (but especially in the workplace) high-achievers, and here the experience is more likely to be linked to fear of failure, fear of success and low self-esteem. As a result, employees are more likely to experience higher rates of stress and burnout, and worse job performance and job satisfaction.

Feeling like a fraud at work may also reduce instances of employees attempting to step out of their comfort zones or propel forward in their careers, for example, not putting themselves forward for a new project, challenge or even a promotion. These people are therefore less likely to invest in planning their careers and have less motivation to be leaders.

Women and Imposter Syndrome

Historically, imposter syndrome was thought to be predominantly experienced by women, however more recent research demonstrates that men get it too. There is an argument that the term has pathologized feelings of discomfort and exclusion that were actually a natural reaction to women being in a work environment that was not diverse nor inclusive. When imposter syndrome was first conceptualised in the 1970s, far less consideration was given to the impact of things like racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other prejudices. We now know that many people, including women and those who belong to minorities, experience micro-aggressions (as well as more overt discrimination) on a daily basis in the workplace. This is bound to result in feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, rather than promote inclusion and belonging.

Additionally, a lack of familiar role-models may increase feeling inadequate and not belonging – it is hard for a young, Black, woman working in a male-dominated and white-dominated field, for example, to see the ways in which she could progress her career if she has limited similar role-models. One way to therefore minimise imposter syndrome may be to create a culture and work environment that supports all people and acknowledges multiple routes to achievement and leadership.

Recognising and Working with Imposter Syndrome

There is an interesting confirmation cycle to imposter syndrome. People who fear not achieving may invest more time and effort into a project, fixate over every small detail in order to perfect it (people with imposter syndrome are often also perfectionists), and then have these strategies confirmed as being successful when they do succeed. This makes it tricky to acknowledge these strategies as being unhelpful, as they may be viewed as the necessary steps in order to not be ‘found out as a fraud.’ Recognising your abilities, expertise and achievements is key to reminding yourself that you have a right to be in the space that you do and that you can only do your best. Focusing on effort, rather than outcome, is a great way to try and minimise feelings of fraud.

The Benefits of Imposter Syndrome

The irony of all of this is that typically, imposters do not see themselves as imposters. It is most common among those who are most concerned about doing a good job.

For example, genuine imposters typically present with inflated levels of confidence. However, those who are more aware that they might not have all the answers all of the time, who behave with confident humility (as proposed by Adam Grant), are thought to be more successful leaders. Additionally, doubting yourself can be a good thing; for example, a sign you’re pushing yourself to try something new or step out of your comfort zone.

Being able to recognise situations in which you feel like an imposter can help your self-awareness and provide opportunities for growth and self-improvement. Moving through these feelings may result in even bigger accomplishments, increasing resilience and career development.

Working with imposter syndrome is also linked to improved communication and teamwork. For instance, those who are aware of their own strengths as well as their weaknesses are better placed to understand the importance of multiple people’s contributions. This generally means that the work environment has the potential to be more collaborative and empathic, if re-evaluating work and incorporating multiple perspectives is actively encouraged. This will only result in objectively better work.

So, next time you feel out of your depth, or like you’re maybe not quite good enough or experienced enough to be where you are, take comfort in the fact that if you didn’t want to do a good job, or didn’t care, you probably wouldn’t be concerned!

Concentrate on the effort you’re putting in, being mindful of the process of whatever it is you’re working on, and that most of the people you’re working with also probably feel a bit out of their depth sometimes!


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