Who hasn’t had feelings of self-doubt or insecurity? Rejecting praise out of modesty or a sense of unworthiness are common human emotions. But according to behavioralists and psychologists, these feelings can be extreme for some people in what’s known as “imposter syndrome” (IS).
“Imposter syndrome is more than a feeling of self-doubt or lack of confidence. It’s a deep-seated, false belief that one’s successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill,” Christopher Mitra, confidence and achievement coach at An Inspired Life, told Workest in an email interview. He went on to say, “People with IS often live with an underlying fear that people will eventually discover that they are an imposter.”
IS symptoms appear in various ways, Laura Mills, head of Early Career Insights at Forage, told Workest. “Employees with imposter syndrome can have a hard time accepting praise. They’ll attribute success to other employees, external factors, or luck. They also can have a hard time asking for or accepting help — they think of it as a sign of failure or a reason to discredit their work,” said Mills.
Mills added that employees with IS tend to fixate on mistakes and/or ignore wins by using negative self-talk or such qualifying phrases as “I had help,” “I got lucky,” or “anyone could have done it.”
If these symptoms sound familiar, it’s possible that someone on your staff, or perhaps even you, may be struggling with IS.
The root causes
IS symptoms are straightforward, but the causes are often more complicated.
IS isn’t an official medical diagnosis or the latest workplace trend. Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed what they called the “imposter phenomena” in 1978.
IS isn’t triggered by one mistake or a single failure in life but is rooted in a series of events that began in childhood, said Mitra. “Often, people with IS are exposed to feedback from parents that instills doubt. Ironically, it’s not always negative feedback that causes this doubt,” he said.
He cited gifted children as an example of people with IS who receive so much positive feedback for their achievements that when they face difficulty in life, they begin to distrust anyone — including themselves — who “over-praises” them.
Chelsea Montgomery-Dubin Wächter, CEO of Chelsea Austin Creative, Inc., agrees that IS can have childhood roots. The writer, speaker, and advocate told Workest by email that IS can spring from a childhood experience that shakes people’s confidence and makes them feel they’re not good enough to take on tasks, including new challenges.
But is the syndrome merely about feeling like a fraud or unworthy of praise, or is something psychologically deeper at play?
Mitra describes IS as a very ingrained mindset that goes much deeper than poor self-confidence. “There are studies where high-achieving subjects chalk up their success to far-fetched excuses like a clerical error. The IS beliefs have been built in the subject’s mind for decades and now have a very deep and firm foundation,” he said.
According to Mills, other factors contributing to IS feelings are personality traits or clinical conditions like depression and anxiety.
Systemic bias and exclusion
IS symptoms describe what’s happening internally to the people it claims. But, in some cases, external factors like systemic bias and exclusion are responsible for the symptoms, according to Dannie Lynn Fountain. Ms. Fountain is an HR staffer at Google, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) expert, and the author of “Ending Checkbox Diversity.”
IS symptoms describe what’s happening internally to the people it claims. But, in some cases, external factors like systemic bias and exclusion are responsible for the symptoms.
“We actually need to stop telling people they have imposter syndrome. What we colloquially call ‘imposter syndrome’ can be and often is actually [the result] of systemic bias and exclusion,” Fountain told Workest via email. She said that what may appear to be IS really is “rejection sensitive dysphoria” (RSD). RSD is a condition through which neurodiverse people like herself may experience rejection, sometimes brought on by discrimination.
Mills also cited the connection between systemic bias and IS. “There’s research linking imposter syndrome to:
- Institutional underrepresentation
- Systemic bias
- Toxicity in the workplace”
Fountain said that IS and RSD have overlapping symptoms, like the belief that those who experience either syndrome are an inconvenience or a burden to others. She noted that the IS-RSD combination can be overwhelming if bias is added to the mix.
Women and IS
The MIT study focused on high-achieving women who believed they weren’t bright and that they had fooled anyone who thought otherwise. However, absent in the study were black women and women of color, who, according to a Harvard Business Review report, experience crippling IS symptoms along with white women because of:
- Systemic racism
“To put it simply, imposter syndrome assumes that everyone walks into the workplace with the same belief structure about their accomplishments and the same runway to succeed, when our identities and systemic bias actually render these assumptions invalid,” said Fountain. “The difference can be identified by asking yourself (or others), ‘do I (or you) believe that my (or your) lack of belief in skills exists because of actual skill deficiencies or because of the way this environment interprets or values those skills’.”
Although women have been the focus of IS studies, no one is exempt from the syndrome’s impact. Fountain said that IS is so common that even white heterosexual men in high-level positions in the workplace experience it.
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The performance risks
IS symptoms can be severe but is the severity enough to hurt workers’ performance on the job? Experts agree that it can.
“Yes, imposter syndrome can impact your career in various ways,” said Mills. “It can, for instance, lead to burnout, which can lead to detachment, decreased creativity, excessive absenteeism, lower productivity, and other factors traditionally associated with poor work performance.”
Montgomery-Dubin Wächter said that when experiencing IS, it can be hard to focus and create quality work. “If you’re constantly second-guessing yourself, worried about what someone might say about your work, or paralyzed by the thought that you’ll never live up to the job, it can reduce productivity.”
Wächter continued, “This [phenomenon] can be more common with employees who have recently been transferred or promoted.”
IS can rob workers of the confidence they need to do their job, said Mitra. “Humans have a strong desire and need to belong and be confident in their skills and abilities. When you suffer from IS, you have problems fulfilling those needs,” he said. “This means that you are constantly struggling for a sense of belonging. This can affect your personal and professional life to a great degree.”
According to Mills, IS can even hold back job seekers by preventing them from applying for positions or seeking promotions because they don’t believe they’re qualified candidates or will be successful in a new position.
The upside of IS
IS is usually associated with debilitating thoughts and actions. However, a professor cited in a recent news report from the MIT Sloan School of Management believes the syndrome has an upside.
Sloan Assistant Professor Basima Tewfik, author of “The Impostor Phenomenon Revisited: Examining the Relationship between Workplace Impostor Thoughts and Interpersonal Effectiveness at Work,” believes that people with imposter syndrome are often commended at work for being:
- Exceptional team players
Tewfik suggests that people with imposter syndrome exhibit these traits to compensate for their “perceived shortcomings.” And although she doesn’t think that the syndrome is necessarily debilitating or hinders performance, neither does she believe employers should dismiss, ignore, or even encourage IS because the thoughts associated with it are tied to feelings of low self-esteem.
Help for IS
When workers are performing their jobs well, there may be nothing for employers to worry about. But the possible presence of IS among staff, any anguish they may be feeling emotionally and physically, and the potential decline in their job performance could make employers “sit up and take notice” of the syndrome.
“The answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to “fix” individuals but to create an environment that fosters several different leadership styles. Additionally, a culture where diversity of racial, ethnic, and gender identities is viewed as just as professional as traditional models should be nurtured,” said Mills.
Those with mposter syndrome need to talk about successes in their life. Often it can be hard at first [because] they haven’t seen their success as a positive.
She recommends that employers help workers, and those experiencing IS, in particular, by:
- Encouraging them to celebrate their accomplishments.
- Asking them to jot down wins after one-on-one interactions.
- Creating space for giving them shoutouts and positive feedback.
- Normalizing the idea of asking for help or sharing emotions when workers feel overwhelmed.
- Offering classes, conferences, workshops, or mentorship programs to help build their confidence.
Montgomery-Dubin Wächter advises employers to:
- Avoid employee comparisons. Give employees feedback on their performance without comparing one employee to another.
- Creative a diverse workplace. Prevent employees from feeling like tokens or anomalies, which often happens to members of underrepresented groups.
- Encourage employees to set small goals. Their self-trust and faith in themselves will rebound as they accomplish each milestone.
When working with IS clients, Mitra said he celebrates their wins and investigates their losses. “I spend part of every session having the client talk about successes in their life. Often it can be hard at first [because] they haven’t seen their success as a positive. But when they start to recognize the part they played, they start to change their thoughts around their abilities,” he said.
“People with IS often believe they’re the only ones who feel the way they do,” said Mitra. He recommends that employers talk about the syndrome and its commonness to make IS sufferers feel less alone.
Mitra said that overcoming IS is a bit misleading because of the long-term programming in the mind that it generates. He believes that the best way to work through IS is to start a daily habit of reinforcing a person’s lifetime of wins, successes, and accomplishments, aided by visuals and words of affirmation.
“The idea is to replace your lifelong IS ‘programming’ with a more positive mental code based on confidence and victories,” said Mitra.
“Left unchecked, IS can morph into a state of constant self-doubt and perceived incompetence for those affected,” said Mills.
Mitra noted that when dealing with people with IS, it’s essential not to ever describe any action they take as a failure but to give them valuable, constructive feedback instead on what they can change to be successful.
“Be a safe and nonjudgmental partner with employees who can empathize with their IS mindset. Help guide them towards a better path,” said Mitra. “It took them years to develop imposter syndrome, and a change will not happen overnight.”