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Why Do We Feel Like Workplace Imposters? Imposter Syndrome Explained and What To Do About It

Studies show that 85% of working adults feel inadequate or incompetent at work, with ~70% (although exact measures vary) of people experiencing imposter syndrome at some point in their career.  Imposter syndrome is persistent feelings of inadequacy despite evidence of success. The syndrome causes individuals to feel exposed in the workplace by negatively impacting their […]

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Studies show that 85% of working adults feel inadequate or incompetent at work, with ~70% (although exact measures vary) of people experiencing imposter syndrome at some point in their career. 

Imposter syndrome is persistent feelings of inadequacy despite evidence of success. The syndrome causes individuals to feel exposed in the workplace by negatively impacting their performance and life quality.

I’ve experienced imposter syndrome without realizing it, which to me, signifies a lack of awareness despite the syndrome’s prevalence. 

My experience prompted me to do some digging, to learn more about what imposter syndrome is, its causes, symptoms, and risk factors, and how it can be addressed in the working environment. In this article, I share with you what I found out. 

What is imposter syndrome and where does it come from?

Imposter syndrome is a collective feeling of inadequacy despite evidence of success. The syndrome largely affects how we perceive our workplace accomplishments. It’s associated with the aggressive pursuit of achievement, but an inability to rationally recognize success.

The term was first used by Suzanna Imes and Pauline Clance in the 1970s. When introduced, imposter syndrome was mostly used in the context of high-achieving women, causing early literature bias. Luckily, studies have progressed since, indicating both men and women, of all ages, can equally experience these feelings of inadequacy.

Surprisingly, imposter syndrome is not a recognized disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-5) despite impacting ~70% of individuals at some point in their lives.

I’ve experienced imposter syndrome without knowing what it was. I experienced the syndrome starting university and when I began my career as a content writer. You see, imposter syndrome is a broad term and can present itself in many different ways. I was feeling a unique manifestation of symptoms, which I’ve discussed below.

The types of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome presents itself in different ways, giving four different syndrome types:

  1. The perfectionist: Perfectionism is a recognized feeling of dissatisfaction, with individuals picking out their flaws or mistakes rather than focusing on their strengths and successes. Everyone has negativity bias – a predominant focus on the negative – as unfortunately that’s just how our brains work. But it’s important to recognize this for what it is, and actively seek the positives to remove self-pressure and anxiety that comes from perfectionism.
  2.  The superhero: This one I can relate to in my working life as a writer. Whatever the topic I’m covering, more can always be learned, making it difficult for me to draw a line under my research. The superhero in me is never satisfied and continually grasps for more. Superheros underrate their expertise.
  3. The natural genius: The natural geniuses among you will set lofty goals and feel crushed when they don’t succeed on their first try.
  4. The soloist: For the soloists, self-worth stems from productivity. Offers of assistance are rejected, and asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness or incompetence. I raise my guilty hand, as throughout my university days I would often suffer in silence. Luckily, I’ve now learned that it’s okay to not understand and ask for help.

Imposter syndrome and its underlying causes

My personal experiences with imposter syndrome led me to do some digging through the literature. I wanted to decipher the underlying causes and see what can be done about it.

There are many theories giving explanations for the syndrome. However, complexity makes it nearly impossible to decipher a true, focal cause. Explanations will differ from one individual to another. To give you some context of where the literature is at, I’ve listed possible triggers below:

  • Perfectionism: Imposter syndrome is most prevalent in high-achievers, and is tightly tied to perfectionism. To open up a new can of worms, let’s consider what causes perfectionism. Some say perfectionism is an innate aspect of human development. However, the difference between normal perfectionism and neurotic perfectionism – tied to imposter syndrome – is the degree of flexibility an individual allows. Neurotic perfectionists will never be good enough. Studies indicate normal perfectionists will adjust standards depending on the situation.
  • Labels: This is a psychodynamic theory assuming personality forms during the first few years of life, from parent-child interactions. In the context of imposter syndrome, studies suggest that the label’s parents attach to a particular child dictates an individual’s belief system about their ability. E.g. One child is designated the intelligent one and another is designated the sensitive one.
  • Superiority complex: Here’s another psychodynamic theory for you. Research shows that parents program a child with the message of superiority. A child is fully supported by the parent, that he/she feels superior and perfect. This puts a huge amount of pressure on the individual as they are conscious not to fail.
  • New environments: Entering a new role can trigger imposter syndrome. For instance, starting at a new college or university, taking on more responsibility in your current workplace, or moving to a different company. This may make individuals feel like they don’t belong or are not capable. Entering new environments seems to be a trigger for me. Imposter syndrome flared when I started university and in my new role as a content writer. 

Imposter syndrome in the workplace and why you should care

People with imposter syndrome in the workplace aggressively pursue achievement but are not able to accept recognition when success is obtained.

Studies show employees who constantly question their professional legitimacy will experience high levels of stress, burnout, and decreased job performance and satisfaction over time.

Imposter syndrome also reduces an individual’s quality of life, lowering confidence and self-esteem. Once more, if not nipped in the bud, studies indicate the syndrome can cause anxious and depressive disorders.

Due to the significant impingement on an employee’s life and work performance, it’s vital that presenting symptoms, prevalence, risk factors, and mitigating strategies are recognized and addressed. 

With that in mind, let’s firstly consider how we can identify imposter syndrome in the workplace.

Identifying the prevalence of imposter syndrome in the workplace, looking at the risk factors, and presenting syndromes

Employees and managers, you can identify imposter syndrome in the workplace by looking out for:

  • Workaholic tendencies: Make note of the hours you and your colleagues work. Look out for individuals not taking time off and struggling to relax. It’s common for people with imposter syndrome to over-prepare and work harder than is necessary.
  • Perfectionist tendencies: Identify perfectionist tendencies. Are you or other team members anything but satisfied unless a piece of work is perfect? Do you or other team members struggle to delegate tasks and are prone to micromanaging?
  • Soloist tendencies: Identify team members – this includes yourself – who never ask for help, those who are independent, and not fully working with the team.
  • Expertise tendencies: Do you or other team members constantly seek more knowledge and facts beyond what’s possible to obtain? This is typical of imposter syndrome – needing to know everything but never knowing enough.

On top of identifying the risk factors, it’s also important to scout presenting characteristics of the syndrome, which includes:

  • Self-doubt
  • An inability to realistically assess competence and skills
  • Attributing success to external factors
  • Berating performance
  • Fear of expectations and not living up to them
  • Overachieving
  • Sabotaging success
  • Setting challenging goals

You can find out whether you or another team member is experiencing imposter syndrome by asking the following questions:

  1. Do you agonize over the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work?
  2. Do you attribute success to external factors?
  3. Are you sensitive to constructive criticism?
  4. Do you feel like you will inevitably be found out as a phony?
  5. Do you downplay your expertise, even in areas where you are more skilled than others?
  6. What core beliefs do you hold about yourself?
  7. Must you be perfect for others to approve of you?
  8. Do you procrastinate to meet your high standards?

Strategies to mitigate imposter syndrome in the workplace

Let’s deal with imposter syndrome head-on in the workplace. It’s important to start open discussions and put in place the right training. Mitigate imposter syndrome through:

  • Education: Awareness is the first step to change, make sure you’re providing this awareness in the workplace. Imposter syndrome can make people feel isolated. Education will bring the problem to the forefront, for others to share their experiences.
  • Training and coaching: This means altering belief systems, scripts, reframing mindsets, using positive affirmations, and understanding the internal motivators of employees.
  • Ensuring management has the right training tools: Managers need to be able to build relationships and trust, develop emotional intelligence, use empathy and understand how to give feedback that works. These are critical management skills enabling employees to be more open and authentic, and in turn drive productivity, loyalty, and retention.
  • Create a supportive and open company culture: Creating a supportive culture requires an understanding of how imposter syndrome impacts employee well-being to take mitigating action. 
  • Be inclusive: A lack of inclusivity makes imposter syndrome worse. The workplace needs a strong inclusion agenda, to validate under-represented groups.
  • Pay and rewards: There needs to be clear remuneration and promotion objectives. Avoid giving job offers and promotions to those who go way beyond expectations. This sets the achievement bar too high creating fear.
  • Success attribution: Accurately attribute success. Rewarding hard work over creativity and teamwork will drive workaholics to work even harder and demonstrate even less creativity and teamwork.
  • Manage change appropriately: Manage changing roles appropriately and alleviate the ill effects of imposter syndrome. Plan, deploy and track changes in your and team member roles, and acknowledge that change may instigate feelings of unease. 

Imposter syndrome impairs an individual’s life quality and work performance. I experienced symptoms of imposter syndrome without realizing it, which to me, emphasizes the lack of attention the syndrome gets despite its prevalence and negative effects.

I believe more effort is needed to mitigate imposter syndrome, especially in the workplace. My experience prompted me to dig deep into the literature. I’ve shared with you the proactive tips and tricks I’ve learned that’ll nip imposter syndrome in the bud.

Author Bio 

I am a Content Writer at Process Street. I graduated in Biology, specializing in Environmental Science at Imperial College London. During my degree, I developed an enthusiasm for writing to communicate environmental issues. I continued my studies at Imperial College’s Business School, and with this, my writing progressed looking at sustainability in a business sense. When I am not writing I enjoy being in the mountains, running, and rock climbing. Follow me at @JaneCourtnell.

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