How to combat Imposter Syndrome in the workplace

An estimated 70% of people experience Imposter Syndrome at some point in their lives, according to the International Journal of Behavioral Science. Find out what Imposter Syndrome is, how to overcome it, and what you can do as a manager to support your team.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome refers to intense feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy that override evidence to the contrary. You feel unable to accept your accomplishments or external proof that you’re competent.

The term originally comes from a study conducted in 1978 by Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University, titled “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. The most common beliefs they catalogued among people experiencing Imposter Syndrome are:

  1. Thinking that people have an exaggerated view of your abilities
  2. The fear of being exposed as a fraud 
  3. The continuous tendency to downplay your achievements

“You don’t know what you’re doing.” “They are going to catch you out.” “You’re a failure.”

What effect does Imposter Syndrome have at work? 

Imposter Syndrome affects well-being. These feelings of self-doubt can result in withdrawal at work: not speaking up in meetings, not suggesting ideas, and remaining stagnant in their role.

These feelings can also result in overwork and overpreparation – with fear and anxiety driving the person to prepare so thoroughly their work life balance and other work is impacted. They may feel uncomfortable communicating their needs and their boundaries. All of these elements could lead to illness or burnout.

Imposter Syndrome also impacts resilience. Often projects involve numerous touch points, managing stakeholders, making amends and testing theories – all of which require confident communication and time management.

Just as it’s difficult to outline weaknesses, Imposter Syndrome blinds people to their strengths and successes, and makes them less likely to put themselves forward for opportunities.

New research gives Imposter Syndrome discussion more nuance

MIT scholar Basima Tewfik, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, suggests in a new paper that there are some benefits to Imposter Syndrome. In workplace settings, those suffering from imposter thoughts are often more “other-oriented” as a result. Meaning they work hard to compensate for their perceived failure by being good team players with strong social skills, contributing to high interpersonal effectiveness.

Her conclusions weren’t meant to dismiss or diminish those suffering with Imposter Syndrome, but to re-contextualise it. Many people will continue to have these thoughts despite laying effective groundwork to prevent them – but they aren’t all bad. They motivate and direct us in other ways that can be beneficial to the team overall. However listening, validating and supporting employees suffering from low feelings and self-doubt is still of crucial importance.

The message is that rather than look at Imposter Syndrome as a problem to fix, which creates unrealistic expectations for both employers and employees, to instead invest in an inclusive and honest workplace that benefits everyone. In this sense, having doubts or fears aren’t failures, but are expected parts of the process that the organization has pre-considered and provided effective support to manage.

What can employers do to combat Imposter Syndrome?

As an employer, it’s important to make sure you always encourage a supportive environment with a focus on people’s emotional well-being.

Every organization is different, as is every team. There’s no one-size-fits-all method for building a healthy, balanced and inclusive workplace. However regular training for managers on how to work with different personality types and how to encourage transparent communication can start to build an environment where people feel able to speak up if they need to.

There are lots of reasons someone you manage may feel uncomfortable being direct with you – so be sure to think about encouraging communication in a variety of settings to help everyone feel they can access your support. Signpost to third party support if your organization offers this, or alternative people to discuss issues with if they’re not comfortable sharing with you for whatever reason.

A big part of motivating and managing a team or organization is taking time to celebrate the wins and validate the hard work your people are putting in! With different personalities responding to different things it’s worth checking in directly with your team to see what motivates them and how you can reward them in a way that doesn’t make them uncomfortable.

Finally – as important as celebrating success is, and as motivational as rewards can be, it’s important to combat the stigma around rest and recovery for your employees. Imposter Syndrome, anxiety and stress are all fatiguing. As counterintuitive as it might seem, the most effective way of promoting your teams’ productivity is to encourage rest and allow employees to dictate their recovery time. Trust is a two-way street and this could be an effective way to start understanding pressures and bottlenecks – by actively listening and catering to the needs of your employees.

How to combat your own Imposter Syndrome:

If you struggle with Imposter Syndrome, there are ways you can try and manage it so that you can work effectively and think of yourself positively:

  • Keep a list of your achievements and strengths somewhere you can see it.
    If you believe you have nothing to add on there (you definitely do), ask a friend, manager or colleague to help you. Every time you receive good feedback, add this on there too.

    Life coach and founder of Confident and Killing It, Tiwalola Ogunlesi, recommends acknowledging your achievements in a “monthly wins tracker” to chronicle progress and reflect. She has a free tracker template available for download on her website you can use to start off with!
  • Talk about it.
    A lot of people don’t talk about these feelings but by speaking to your manager or a friend or colleague about it, you will more than likely realize you are not alone in struggling with Imposter Syndrome and that there are systems in place to support you.

    Your manager can help you plan and work towards goals you have, and break these down into manageable steps to take on one at a time! In his book, Atomic Habits, author and speaker James Clear emphasizes the impact of “one percent better every day.” We all want to do better – but shame isn’t motivational. It’s important to see and appreciate the process, rather than punishing yourself for not meeting an outcome.
  • Create a ‘For and Against Argument’
    This is a recommended Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) technique if you suffer with anxiety that can help tackle imposter thoughts. When you start feeling like a fraud, write down that thought and then challenge it.

    For example:
    “They are going to find out I’m not good at my job.”
    Argument For: It takes me a long time to prepare a presentation.
    Argument Against: You wouldn’t be in this position if someone didn’t think you could do it. List your qualifications and achievements. Preparation is a good thing.

    You’ll notice that any ‘For’ argument created would not be factual and is just your inner critic.

There is no guaranteed way to combat Imposter Syndrome, so pick and choose different techniques that work for you and your team. Don’t expect instant changes overnight! It might take some time, and there might be set backs along the way, but a more inclusive and honest workplace benefits everyone and is worth working towards!

If you’re suffering from Imposter Syndrome, you may never stop having intrusive thoughts. However, you can control how you perceive them. You can also reach out to your team or line manager for help and support. As this syndrome is more widely reported on and recognized, employee assistance programs offer a lot by way of personal development plans and exercises to help you think positively about who you are and what you bring to your role!

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We at Salt, a global digital recruitment agency, surveyed our global audiences in 2020 to generate a data-packed Women in the Workplace report with lots of practical insights and advice for employers and hiring managers. Imposter Syndrome and its effect is discussed in detail. Check out the full report here!

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