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Impostor Syndrome: it’s not Just About You

Sonia Mayor

”Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. Impostor syndrome is the psychological term used to describe feelings of doubt and inadequacy in the workplace despite being successful, even highly achieving, in your role. Those struggling with impostor syndrome can get locked in a cycle of questioning their abilities, downplaying their achievements and constantly fearing being exposed as incompetent. According to the International Journal of Behavioural Science, more than 70% of the population experiences impostor syndrome – feeling that their success may be accidental, coincidental or even fraudulent.

The impostor phenomenon (later referred to as syndrome) was first coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, and while initial research indicated that mainly women were affected, more recent studies suggest that men are just as susceptible. In fact, a 2014 study found that impostor syndrome was the top fear of CEOs worldwide, with 60% saying it negatively impacted their ability to lead confidently. Impostor syndrome can manifest in the workplace in a myriad of ways, including a reluctance to ask for help, ‘quick-fix solutions’, poor decision-making, defensiveness, risk aversion, perfectionism, lack of honest conversations and overworking to the point of burnout. The generally adopted approach to tackling impostor syndrome is for work to take place with the individual in an attempt to change their mindset with the intention of lessening, eradicating or developing ‘tools’ to address the feelings they are experiencing.

Despite its prevalence, it is not established why people experience impostor syndrome. By framing feelings of inadequacy as personal flaws that need to be worked on, it absolves an exploration of the role of the wider context and culture in creating those feelings in individuals. If it affects so many of us, what could be the underlying values and beliefs that allow it to flourish and what might it be revealing about workplace culture?

Culture is one factor that influences how we think and behave. Is impostor syndrome symptomatic of individualistic cultures that celebrate the heroic soloist leader and promote the idea that organisations are run by charismatic, uniquely gifted geniuses? Individualistic cultures prize things such as autonomy, independence and self-sufficiency. Being dependent upon others is often considered shameful, weak or embarrassing. People often
place a greater emphasis on standing out and being unique. In such cultures, people are considered ‘good’ if they are strong, self-reliant, assertive and independent.

The feelings ‘I don’t deserve to be here’ or ‘I’m not as smart or as competent as they think I am’ are common experiences cited by sufferers of impostor syndrome. I wonder if these feelings are fuelled by emphasis on the idea that people should be able to solve problems quickly or accomplish goals on their own without relying on assistance from others. People are often expected to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ when they encounter setbacks.
The causes of today’s problems are complex; there are no simple answers and no one individual can possibly know what to do. The myth that our individual talent and effort can fix everything and make problems go away is still a belief held by many. In fact, many disciplines, from biology to neuroscience to the study of social networks, are now dispelling the illusion that we exist as competitive independent entities, revealing instead that our survival
depends upon forming strong bonds with each other and working collaboratively in groups. We flourish when we are in environments where we are met with compassion, empathy and love.

The latest developments in neurobiological research have also revealed that our emotions are contagious, and that how others feel has a huge impact on how we behave and feel ourselves. This has serious implications for organisations, as we know that leaders have a tremendous effect on workplace culture. These findings urge us
to nurture our emotional lives, create safe environments and foster healthy connections. Interestingly, according to recent findings from Basima Tewfik, assistant professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan, the behaviours that ‘impostors’ exhibit in an attempt to compensate for their self-doubt can actually make them good at their jobs. So, in Tewfik’s words, it seems ‘impostor syndrome isn’t “always good” or “always bad”; it’s a much more complex phenomenon than it’s been represented to be.’ Tewfik found that, despite their self-doubt, the workers experiencing impostor thoughts were actually rated more interpersonally effective than their non-impostor peers; managers described them as better collaborators who worked well with colleagues. So, does some of the answer to overcoming impostor thoughts lie not in ‘fixing’ individuals but in creating stronger team cultures
where everyone feels at home and that their contributions count? The mindset and values in such teams are being dependable, generous and helpful to others. Group goals and cooperation are prioritised. People are more likely to turn to one another for support during difficult times and might even sacrifice their own comfort for the greater good of everyone else.

In innovative organisations, teams are formed according to the expertise that the job demands and the skills that the individual seeks to develop, instead of assumed expertise based on role or pecking orders. Everyone matters, instead of rank indicating importance. Respect flows from capability, not position, and leadership is more fluid. In these cultures, leaders openly acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers. This doesn’t make them a fraud; on the contrary, it helps them define and solve problems more efficiently, creatively and collaboratively.


Given that impostorism largely affects how individuals perceive their accomplishments in the workplace, how could a team-based approach reduce these feelings?

• As a leader-coach, you can play an important role in surfacing impostor thinking – by bringing employees out from a place of shame and engaging in meaningful conversations about how impostorism may be manifesting in your workplace. You will create more inclusive working environments where belonging, fairness and equity are central to all that you do.

• Uncover the organisational mindset(s) and reframe it: mindsets people have about what they can and cannot do influence workplace behaviours. Workplace culture also has a profound effect on shaping the beliefs and values that underpin how people approach their work. Every cue, from how performance reviews are conducted to what behaviours are valued, sends a signal about the ‘right way’ to think and behave. To shift to a new set of behaviours, organisations need to grasp the cues they send and the collective mindset they create. Then they can reframe and
address those underlying mindsets to achieve new behaviours.

• Create safe spaces for honest conversations where people are encouraged to speak up, share their ideas and challenge the status quo. When team members feel safe at work, it’s easier for them to participate in team meetings, solve problems, collaborate on projects and engage with others. Members of great teams trust
one another and they are comfortable being vulnerable with each other about their weaknesses, mistakes, fears and behaviours.

• Reward team efforts and build a culture with shared goals, recognising interdependence as a key to success. Tap into everyone’s creativity by valuing the unique skills of people and look at how they each contribute to the common good. Appreciation is a prime attribute of successful leaders. Teams thrive when individuals feel understood, validated and connected to one another.

• Work with people to develop relevant measures of progress to make their achievements visible. Shift the focus from ‘I don’t deserve to be here’ to what qualities and skills are required to make a difference. Offer unequivocal support and provide regular feedback to people on how they are doing, what they have accomplished and how far they have journeyed as a team.

By adopting these approaches, organisations can address the contextual roots of individuals’ impostor feelings and offer more structural and effective solutions.

Sonia Mayor

i. Jones, R. (2015). ‘What CEOs are afraid of’. Harvard Business Review.
ii. ideas.wharton.upenn.edu/research/imposter-syndrome-unexpected-benefits
iii. time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome
iv. Lencioni, P. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. John Wiley & Sons, (2002)