Imposter syndrome at work - What leaders can do

Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon or impostorism, is something that an estimated 70% of people experience throughout their careers. The term was first coined in the 1970s by psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanna Imes. At first, they thought the intense feeling of being an intellectual fraud in the workplace was exclusive to high-achieving women. However, as studies into imposter syndrome have progressed, we now understand this to affect most people despite gender, ethnicity, age or job title. Statistically, men are more likely to experience moments of self-doubt, but they are often too ashamed to come forward and talk about it.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is not recognised as a diagnosable mental health condition but rather something that people experience from time to time. Imposter syndrome can manifest in feelings of self-doubt, fear that you might not live up to your employers’ (or your own) expectations, believing that your successes are due to external factors despite compelling evidence to the contrary that you are competent, feelings of disappointment when you fail to meet an unrealistic goal that you set yourself and feeling like you consistently must overachieve to prove that you are not a fraud. These feelings can result in constant anxiety that you are not doing enough to justify your position in the business.

Why Leaders Should Address Signs of Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome will harm your team's productivity, quality of output and it can lead to burnout, which could cause long-term absenteeism. Individuals who experience imposter syndrome also tend to be risk-averse, which means that they are less likely to innovate due to fear of failure. So, leaders must understand what imposter syndrome is and how to help their people overcome it.

Identifying the Signs of Imposter Syndrome 

1. Perfectionism

Some people refer to being a perfectionist when they mean that they have high standards or great attention to detail. However, true perfectionism is a giant red flag of imposter syndrome. People who set unrealistic expectations for themselves and others, those who are never satisfied with the quality of their work and get fixated on flaws or mistakes, are likely to be people who struggle with the pressure of perfectionism. The pressure they put on themselves to be perfect can lead to high levels of anxiety and compulsive behaviour. They tend to have trouble delegating tasks as they will not measure up to their standards of perfection and their intense fear of failure can lead to procrastination and the inability to ask others for help.

2. Overworking

Employees who are consistently first in and last out of the office might seem like great assets to any business. However, this is another red flag of imposter syndrome. People who feel the need to work longer hours than they are contracted to work, avoid taking breaks, dodge workplace social events to continue working and find relaxing outside of work challenging, are likely compelled to do this because they are experiencing imposter syndrome and are desperate to prove their worth as an employee.

3. Failure is not an option but nor is enjoying success

Failure plays an important role in learning and innovation but people who experience imposter syndrome tend to feel a great deal of pressure to avoid failure for fear of being “found out”. This can cause delays in delivering work and negatively impact the quality of the work. Even when the outcome of their work is successful, it can make the person with imposter syndrome uncomfortable as it brings with it added pressure to avoid failure in future. This is a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break as they do not believe that they deserve accolades or acknowledgement for their successes, putting it down to luck or external influences.  

4. Human Encyclopaedias

These individuals are never satisfied with their level of knowledge and understanding of a topic. They are driven to learn as much as they can; even if they are highly intelligent, knowledgeable and skilled, they still underrate their abilities and feel like frauds.  

5. Avoiding delegation of work

This is something that is linked to perfectionism and is also a trait of imposter syndrome. Some people feel uncomfortable delegating work to others because they believe that the work will not be up to their impossibly high standard. They also do not want other peoples’ mistakes or poor-quality output to reflect badly on them as a leader.  

Advice on how leaders can support a team member who is experiencing imposter syndrome

If you suspect that a member of your team is experiencing imposter syndrome, then there are a few ways that you can help them to overcome those feelings.

1. Listen without judgement

It is common for people experiencing imposter syndrome to feel like they are alone and hiding behind a mask at work. Ensure that your people know that you are available to talk about how they are feeling and that you will listen without judgement because these feelings of inadequacy are extremely common. Helping your people to reframe their feelings of loneliness by understanding that what they are experiencing is very normal, can help to reassure them.

2. Encourage open discussions about strengths and weaknesses

At Marshall Centre, the team complete Clarity 4D profiles, which produces an impartial report outlining strengths, weaknesses and personality traits. The team’s profiles are shared openly, and we are all encouraged to give each other honest feedback. This is a great way to silence people’s inner critics because it demonstrates that nobody in the team is perfect, and it highlights who you can go to when you need help with specific tasks that they are naturally good at and enjoy.

3. Do not argue with or ignore anyone’s inner critic

When leaders dismiss or contradict someone’s inner critic it can cause more anxiety and pressure than it alleviates. If someone doubts their skills to complete a task at work, the worst thing a manager can say is, “don’t be silly, I wouldn’t have given you this task if I didn’t think you could do it.” This can make them feel like even bigger frauds as their perceived incompetence is being overlooked by their manager. It is far better to ask open questions (questions without a yes or no answer) to drill down why they think they do not have the skills to do the job and to find examples of where they have demonstrated those skills in the past.   

4. Create a no-blame culture

To ease the intense fear of failure that imposter syndrome creates, ensure your team know that it is acceptable and even encouraged, at all levels of seniority, to admit when they have failed without fear of reprimand.   

5. Ensure that your managers receive relevant training on the subject

It can be challenging for managers (especially accidental managers) to know how to identify when people are experiencing imposter syndrome and what to do about it.  

Click here to explore our resilience series of courses including: 

Silencing Your Inner Critic & Combating Imposter Syndrome

Related Articles