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Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace

Have you ever doubted your ability to do your job? That at any moment HR or your manager may call you into their office and tell you that you’re not qualified to be in your current position? These feelings are known as “imposter syndrome” and are more common than you may think.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome refers to an internal experience of believing that you’re not as competent as other people perceive you to be. Put simply, you suffer from self-doubt making you feel like a phony and that you don’t belong in your current position and got there by chance or luck—not due to your skills, abilities, intelligence, and accomplishments.

As one of the most common mental health issues in today’s workplace, nearly 3 in 5 (58 percent) employees suffer from imposter syndrome. Women and younger people are disproportionately more likely to experience feelings of self-doubt with millennials (25 to 39-year-olds) most likely to feel like frauds in the workplace (27 percent) and only a small proportion of workers aged 65 and above suffering from feelings of self-doubt (3 percent).

However, imposter syndrome can affect anyone in any profession—from students to top executives. The International Journal of Behavioral Science estimates that 70 percent of people experience imposter feelings at some point in their lives. Even one of the greatest and most influential physicists of all time—Albert Einstein—is believed to have suffered from it late in his life along with Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks, and Serena Williams.

Common characteristics of imposter syndrome

Workers with imposter syndrome often over-prepare or work harder than needed to ensure that no one perceives them to be a fraud. It causes people to not have the ability to internalize their experiences of success and suffer from constant anxiety and conflict between their self-perception and the way others perceive them.

Verywell Mind—a team of board-certified physicians and established mental health experts—has identified eight common signs or characteristics of imposter syndrome:

  • An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
  • Attributing your success to external factors
  • Berating your performance
  • Fearing that you won’t live up to expectations
  • Overachieving
  • Sabotaging your own success
  • Self-doubting
  • Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short

Additional signs include:

  • A reluctance to ask for help
  • Turning down new opportunities and challenges
  • An inability to accept praise and internalize your achievement
  • A feeling that your colleagues have it all together but you don’t

Leading researcher Dr. Valerie Young describes five main types of imposters:

  • The perfectionist: We all know people who demand perfection in every aspect of their lives! Because perfection is not realistic, perfectionists criticize themselves for small mistakes, feel ashamed that they “failed,” and often avoid trying new things.
  • The natural genius: People that easily pick up new skills with little effort are prone to feel ashamed, embarrassed, or like a fraud when they fail at something that did not come easy to them.
  • The rugged individualist (or soloist): A person who believes that they are capable of handling everything by themself often feels inadequate, or like a failure, when they need help or support from a team member or manager.
  • The expert: A person that feels the need to learn everything there is to know about a specific topic often feels like a failure when he/she can’t answer a question regarding that topic or misses pertinent information related to it.
  • The superhero: A person that links their competence to their ability to succeed in every role they hold in life—employee, parent, or friend—feels like a failure when they don’t have the energy to succeed in each role. Superheroes feel inadequate and like they could have done more.

The negative impacts of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome isolates individuals, negatively impacts relationships, overrides employees’ success at work, and hinders innovation. Indeed’s Working on Wellbeing reports that imposter syndrome results in procrastination (63 percent), longer working hours (57 percent), higher staff turnover (44 percent), a loss in productivity (41 percent), along with employees not applying for internal promotions (39 percent).

Ways to alleviate imposter syndrome in the workplace

To help alleviate imposter syndrome in the workplace, organizations can do the following:

  • Create a culture of inclusion: Ensure your workplace is inclusive. Every worker should feel a sense of belonging, that their voice is heard, and they can contribute and thrive within your organization. Workers need to feel comfortable speaking up without fearing they will be perceived as incompetent.
  • Foster a psychologically safe workplace: Leaders should have open discussions with workers about how self-doubt, fear, and risk accompany success and innovation. To gain an advantage over competitors, organizations need employees who can be creative and come up with better ways of designing products and connecting with customers. All team members must feel comfortable introducing ideas and strategies without fearing judgment or negative consequences.
  • Recognize employee accomplishments: Instead of praising your employees’ intelligence or talent, focus your recognition on the processes they used to accomplish the goal—instead of solely on the achievement. By doing this, workers are less likely to attribute their success to luck or chance.  
  • Offer support resources: Implement and promote Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services. An EAP can confidentially help workers that are struggling with imposter syndrome by providing them access to professional support and counseling services.

When taken to the extreme, imposter syndrome can impact an employee’s health and wellbeing, career trajectory, and performance. Organizations must recognize that it exists and take proactive measures to combat it in the workplace.

This blog with written by Broadleaf’s Director of Client Delivery Brian Seleyo.