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What is imposter syndrome? Types, signs and causes

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10 min read
imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where someone feels they are a fraud and not good enough. It can develop in someone’s personal or professional life, and it can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, occupation or race. In fact, according to a behavioral psychology study published by Deloitte, 70% of the global workforce experiences imposter syndrome in the workplace at one time or another.

Given this statistic, as an HR manager or employer, it’s important to understand what you can do to identify employees who might be suffering from this syndrome. You also need to understand how you can offer the right guidance and support so that employees experiencing imposter syndrome can rebuild their confidence and rejoin the workforce as happy and motivated members of staff. 

What is imposter syndrome?

So, what is imposter syndrome exactly?

Imposter syndrome, also known as the imposter phenomenon, is a psychological condition where someone feels they are not good enough. They are filled with anxiety and self-doubt and question their own abilities, despite there usually being evidence to the contrary. They believe that they are not as talented, intelligent, capable, or qualified as others think they are.

The syndrome can manifest in an individual’s personal life, such as feeling they aren’t a good enough friend or parent, or in the workplace. In fact, imposter syndrome at work is a fairly common occurrence, although many organizations may not be aware of it. If left unchecked, it can wear down an employee’s confidence, make them feel like an outsider, and stop them from performing at their best.

In this post, we will be focusing on imposter syndrome in the workplace. Essentially, this is when an employee lacks confidence and they wrongly feel that they are not performing at an acceptable standard and will soon be found out. In other words, they feel like a fraud – that they don’t deserve their jobs or accomplishments. This differs from a regular underperforming employee because someone who is suffering from imposter syndrome is actually more likely to be an overperformer or overachiever in reality. 

Although imposter syndrome is not a medical diagnosis, it is a fairly common phenomenon, and it can have a negative impact on an organization if managers aren’t able to identify the signs and symptoms of the condition. More on this shortly.

Imposter syndrome history 

Before we look at the signs and symptoms of imposter syndrome at work, let’s take a look at some of the history behind the phenomenon

Imposter syndrome isn’t a new condition. In fact, it’s been around for quite some time now. It was first identified in 1978 by researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in their study The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention

During the study, the researchers analyzed 150 professional women who were highly respected in their fields. They found that, despite the fact that these women had achieved great success in their professional lives, they didn’t feel they deserved it; they felt like imposters.

As a result of this finding, Clance and Imes theorized that women were uniquely affected by impostor syndrome. However, research since the ‘70s has demonstrated that this phenomenon can affect people of all genders, ages, races, education levels, and occupations. What’s more, aside from being associated with the feeling of being an imposter, these days, the syndrome is also associated with feelings of inadequacy, especially when it comes to the workplace.

Imposter syndrome signs and symptoms 

Imposter syndrome in the workplace can have a big impact on the bottom line of a business if left unchecked. However, it is notoriously difficult to identify. That’s why it is so important that managers know what clues to look out for so that they can spot when an employee might be suffering from imposter syndrome and offer guidance and support to help them overcome it.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms you should be looking out for:

  • Decreased self-confidence
  • Self-doubting
  • Isolating from team members
  • Perfectionism
  • Working longer hours than needed, such as working late or starting work early every day
  • Experiencing burnout and taking stress leave from work
  • Blaming or criticizing others for minor mistakes
  • Feeling overwhelmed and out of control, despite always meeting deadlines
  • Making comments that suggest they feel like a fraud
  • Struggling with accepting praise and compliments 
  • Frequent procrastination due to fear of failure (better to not do the work than do it and fail)
  • Failing to ask for help when needed
  • Frequently rejecting new opportunities or challenges
  • Crediting their successes to luck rather than talent
  • Doubting their skills and competencies despite possessing the necessary qualifications 
  • Setting impossibly high standards for themselves
  • A notable and unexplained drop in productivity

If you notice any of your employees displaying some or all of these signs and symptoms, then make sure you reach out to them and offer support. If you don’t address potential issues, then it will affect their productivity in the long term. It is also likely to affect the rest of the workplace if left unchecked. Make sure you nip it in the bud before it becomes an institutionalized condition in your organization. More on what you can do to help later in this post. 

Causes of imposter syndrome 

So, we’ve seen what it is and what the signs and symptoms are, but what causes imposter syndrome in the workplace?

According to organizational psychologist Dr Gena Cox, imposter syndrome usually occurs as a result of two key factors. The first is down to an individual’s own psychological makeup and whether they are prone to feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. The second is down to external factors resulting from the workplace environment

For example, if your business has developed a competitive organizational climate, then you may find that your workforce is more prone to imposter syndrome. This is because employees might compare themselves to those that they believe possess more skills, power, or influence than them. This environment is particularly common in organizations working in the financial sector. 

Another common cause is when there is an imbalance between effort and reward in your business. This is because if you don’t reward and recognize your employees then they might begin to feel that they are not good enough. And this can lead to a negative cycle of inadequacy. The same applies if your organization is not very diverse or inclusive. Employees begin to feel like outsiders and then start doubting if there are good as those they perceive to be “different”.

Finally, if employees feel that your organization isn’t open to offering support and guidance then this can lead to feelings of isolation, another common precursor of imposter syndrome. It’s therefore important to create a culture where employees feel safe and that they have someone to talk to if they need help. Effective performance management, regular check-ins, and open lines of communication between managers and employees are vital for this. 

Types of imposter syndrome 

Generally speaking, there are 5 accepted types of imposter syndrome:

  • Perfectionist, 
  • Expert,
  • Soloist,
  • Natural genius, and
  • Superhuman.

Let’s take a look at these in a bit more detail.

Perfectionist 

This type of imposter strives for perfection in everything they do. As a result, when they don’t meet their own high standards, they feel like a failure. They tend to focus more on “how” something is done, rather than the overall outcome. Even when they meet their objectives, they still feel they could have done better. 

Expert

An expert feels that they should know everything relating to their role; they should be an expert in their field. So, when they inevitably make a small mistake (as everyone does at some point or another), they feel they have failed. They tend to focus more on what they “should” know.   

Soloist

A soloist is an employee who feels that they should be able to do everything without the help of others. They see asking for help as a sign of weakness and would rather struggle alone than ask for guidance from management or the support of their colleagues.

Natural genius

A natural genius tends to believe that the faster they complete a task, the more competent they will appear to others. They are primarily focused on “when” they are going to achieve their goals, rather than the achievement themselves. If they feel they’ve taken too long, or they haven’t succeeded at their first attempt at mastering a new skill, they feel like a failure.

Superhuman

The fifth type of imposter is the superhuman. The superhuman believes that the more roles they are able to take on, the more successful others will perceive them to be. They often become overburdened with responsibilities because they always say yes and offer to help when their schedule is already full. And this eventually leads to a drop in performance as they have overstretched themselves. 

The cycle of imposter syndrome 

Pauline Clance, one of the researchers who first coined the phrase imposter syndrome, proposed a model in 1985 to describe what she referred to as “the imposter cycle”. She proposed that when an employee is challenged with an achievement-related task, they experience anxiety and self-doubt, which can then lead them to either over-prepare or procrastinate

If they achieve success with the task, they then attribute it to their increased efforts (over-preparing) or luck (procrastination). This then fuels their sense of being an imposter and begins a negative cycle where they continuously feel they are a fraud. In other words, if they don’t over-prepare or get lucky next time, then they will fail. And they will eventually be singled out as being incompetent. 

What’s more, because the employee perceives that they only achieved their objective because of over-preparing or luck, they don’t feel that they deserve any praise or positive feedback. And this affects their confidence and self-esteem and further perpetuates the vicious cycle. This is why it is so important for managers to be able to spot any signs of imposter syndrome so that they can address it and break the cycle before it gets out of control.

Examples of imposter syndrome 

Imposter syndrome can create a number of problems for your business. For one thing, it can lead to workplace stress and affect the health and wellbeing of your employees. It can also impact interpersonal relationships between your employees, affecting collaboration and communication in your organization. Plus, if a cycle of imposter syndrome develops and spreads to other employees, it can impact morale, motivation levels, performance, and productivity. 

Think about your workforce and consider whether any individuals or teams are displaying any of the following imposter syndrome examples:

  • Notable drops in productivity
  • Employees or teams working longer hours than usual
  • Higher levels of procrastination
  • Conflict between employees, especially if related to perfectionism and undue criticism
  • A drop in the number of employees applying for internal promotions
  • Fewer employees accepting learning and development opportunities
  • Increased absences, especially if they relate to workplace stress or other mental health issues
  • An unexplained increase in your employee turnover rate

All these are clear signs that there may be a growing cycle of imposter syndrome at your organization that you need to address.

How to overcome imposter syndrome in the workplace 

Although imposter syndrome in the workplace is a relatively widespread phenomenon, studies have shown that most employers are unaware of it. This is generally because employees don’t feel safe enough to reach out for help.

This might be because they are:

  • Worried about being seen as less capable, reinforcing their unfounded fear of being singled out for being a fraud
  • Ashamed or embarrassed
  • Anxious about what their manager and colleagues might think of them
  • Concerned about the stigma associated with imposter syndrome
  • Unaware that they have a problem

This means that the best way to tackle imposter syndrome at work is by creating the right workplace culture. Ultimately, the more you are able to create an environment where employees feel safe, valued, and appreciated, the less likely they will feel that they aren’t good enough. Plus, a healthy working environment will also boost your employer brand and help you attract top talent to your business. 

Here are a few strategies you can use to develop the right culture and help your employees overcome imposter syndrome.

Create a safe environment 

One of the most effective strategies for preventing imposter syndrome at your organization is creating a safe and nurturing environment for your employees. Encourage your employees to speak up when they are unhappy and offer them guidance and support when needed. Make sure they understand that they can always come to you (or their manager) without fear of recrimination or judgement. It’s also a good idea to share regular employee satisfaction surveys to keep track of how your workforce is feeling. 

You could also:

  • Provide your employees with resources and information about imposter syndrome so that they understand what it is. This will make it easier for them to identify potential signs in themselves or in their colleagues. 
  • Create a support network for any employees that you suspect might be suffering from the syndrome. Offer coaching or mentorship to any employees who might be struggling.
  • Implement measures to reduce employee stress at work, such as a wellness program.
  • Train your managers so that they understand what clues they should be looking out for.
  • Promote an open-door policy for your HR department so that employees know they can reach out if needed.

Conduct regular performance evaluations

Conducting regular performance appraisals and evaluations can help your employees feel valued and heard. It’s also a great platform for reminding your employees of their strengths and abilities. Provide specific and targeted feedback about what an employee is doing well to help build their confidence. Above all, make sure you focus on their progress, not the end result. In other words, what they’re doing well, not what they’re lacking.

Implement a reward and recognition program

A reward and recognition program can be a great way to bring attention to an employee’s achievements. Giving credit when due can disperse the seeds of doubt. It will also help your workforce understand that you value their achievements, and they should too. 

Another great way to develop a sense of team spirit and ensure your employees feel rewarded is by sharing a regular employee spotlight through your newsletter or social media pages. An employee spotlight is a form of published content that promotes the successes of one of your employees. Content usually includes their history with the company, personal achievements, education and experience, and personal interests, plus any successes and challenges within the company. Put simply, it’s a way of showcasing your employees that enables you to recognize achievements and show appreciation. It can also be a great way to build connections and organizational commitment.

Promote diversity and inclusion

Work on creating a diverse and inclusive culture where all employees feel that they belong. This is important because not feeling included and accepted at work is a common cause of imposter syndrome. The more the members of your organization feel they are part of a group, the more confident and appreciated they will feel. And this will help to combat any creeping sense of self-doubt. Plus, your employees will be more accepting of both their strengths and their weaknesses. 

Include all employees in your learning and development plan 

Finally, if you don’t already have one, create a learning and development plan and make sure all your employees are included. Work with employees on an individual basis to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Once you’ve done that, offer them opportunities to improve or enhance their skills. 

This will help to build the confidence and self-esteem of your employees and help them believe that they are in their role because their skills are recognized. And the more valued and self-assured your employees feel, the less likely they are to spiral into a cycle of self-doubt and develop imposter syndrome.

Cat Symonds is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Originally from Wales, she studied Spanish and French at the University of Swansea before moving to Barcelona where she lived and worked for 12 years. She has since relocated back to Wales where she continues to build her business, working with clients in Spain and the UK.  Cat is the founder of The Content CAT: Content And Translation, providing content development and translation services to her clients. She specializes in corporate blogs, articles of interest, ghostwriting, and translation (SP/FR/CA into EN), collaborating with a range of companies from a variety of business sectors. She also offers services to a number of NGOs including Oxfam Intermón, UNICEF, and Corporate Excellence - Centre for Reputation Leadership.  For more information or to contact Cat visit her website or send her a message through LinkedIn.

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