By Tracy Tsai, ACC, CPC
The term “imposter syndrome” has now become quite ubiquitous, and individuals suffering from it often use it to describe feelings of inadequacy and the belief that they are a fraud–despite evidence to the contrary. The cost of imposter syndrome is high, not only to individuals who experience it, but to the organizations in which they work. In this blog, we explore what individuals and organizations can do to help combat imposter syndrome and its negative impact. We also examine why this syndrome is even more pronounced for women and other underrepresented groups.
A study by KMPG showed that 75% of female executives across industries have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers, and 85% believe imposter syndrome is commonly experienced by women in corporate America. These are concerning numbers, especially as research consistently shows that imposter syndrome creates a host of negative and debilitating consequences, including depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
The impact of imposter syndrome on professional advancement is also significant. Those who suffer from imposter syndrome tend to be perfectionists who are not only critical of themselves, but also others, causing them to micro-manage the people around them. This, along with their tendency to overwork, ultimately leads to burnout. They also tend not to explore stretch opportunities, for fear that others will discover they are not as smart or capable as they appear to be. Imposter syndrome has also been linked to self-sabotage, so those who do get promoted might find themselves engaging in self-defeating behaviors in their new role, undermining their own efforts.
What Can Individuals Do?
Here are some strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome:
1. Acknowledge Your Feelings
Recognizing that you have imposter syndrome is sometimes the most difficult part of overcoming it. One way to recognize this tendency is to actively notice, or write down, your feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy whenever they come up. For example, “I don’t deserve to be in this role.” Take a step back and reflect on these thoughts, and ask yourself how true they really are. What would a good friend say about you in this situation? Try to challenge your initial thoughts with facts that support why you do deserve to be here. You can also counter negative thoughts by neutralizing them with positive statements and affirmations.
2. Develop a Support Network
Reach out to friends, mentors, coaches and others you respect. If it’s difficult for you to counter your negative inner critic on your own, enlist others who you can trust to share what they see in you. Underrepresented individuals may also find it helpful to foster relationships in empowering communities in which people of similar backgrounds can provide support and help them navigate imposter syndrome with empathy.
3. Let Go of Perfectionism
Perfectionism feeds imposter syndrome, so what’s the best way to starve it? Focus on progress, rather than perfection. While it’s important to set goals, make sure that they are realistic and achievable. Also, reframe mistakes and failures as an opportunity to learn. Instead of seeing mistakes as something to be ashamed of, use them as information to help you perform better next time.
4. Own and Celebrate Your Successes
Individuals with imposter syndrome often struggle with success. They tend to brush off praise and attribute their success to luck or factors outside of themselves. Conversely, when they fail or make mistakes, they attribute most of the blame to themselves. Taking responsibility for both successes and failures requires developing the belief that your life is shaped by your own actions, not those of others. Your achievements are a product of your skill and talent. You can reinforce this concept by taking time to celebrate your successes, no matter how big or small. Keep a log of positive feedback you receive, and refer back to this the next time imposter syndrome rears its head.
What Can Organizations Do?
In recent years, the focus has shifted from what individuals can do to mitigate the effects of imposter syndrome, to the role of organizations in incubating this phenomenon. In their Harvard Business Review article, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey urge managers to look at the broader culture at work, rather than solely focusing on the individual.
In today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, if an individual already doubts their abilities, such an environment can exacerbate those feelings due to frequent shifts in performance goals and expectations. In addition, those who already struggle with perfectionism and the tendency to micromanage may go into overdrive, leading them full-speed towards overwork and burnout. And when high-potential individuals hold back due to fear of being “found out,” it can also limit an organization’s leadership pipeline.
The cost of imposter syndrome to an organization is significant, as it negatively impacts employee performance, engagement and ultimately, retention. So what are some actionable steps managers can take to end imposter syndrome in their organizations?
1. Encourage Work / Life Boundaries
As imposter syndrome is linked to perfectionism and overwork, one key strategy is to establish healthier working norms. This will only work if managers are empowered to uphold and model these norms with their individual teams. Examples of healthy boundaries are no meetings after 5pm and no emails sent after 8pm or on weekends.
2. Foster Psychological Safety
Those who suffer from imposter syndrome are hesitant to reveal their experience to others, for fear of being judged. Leaders can help to remove the stigma around this by sharing their own struggles and highlighting the conditions that caused it (e.g., uncredited work, underrepresentation), which can help normalize the experience and create an opportunity for open discussion.
Another way that managers can create psychological safety for their teams is to frame discussions as an opportunity for sharing and learning, and emphasize that differences in thoughts and opinions are a source of value. Ask open-ended questions that facilitate the candid sharing of concerns and ideas. Allow for mistakes, and help them to reframe their narrative from “being wrong means I am incompetent” to “being wrong is an opportunity for me to learn and grow.” This will help to create an environment where vulnerability and candor are not only normalized, but are viewed as having a positive impact on business results.
3. Communicate Clearly and Often
In today’s environment, change is the only constant. Unfortunately, constantly changing goalposts can fuel imposter syndrome and drive feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure. Managers can help mitigate these feelings by engaging in active, transparent and ongoing communication with employees, especially around the organization’s expectations and evaluation processes.
Giving feedback is one way to make sure expectations are clearly communicated and understood. Providing feedback on a more frequent basis can help individuals and their managers reassess their goals in light of unanticipated changes.
And don’t forget to celebrate wins! As those with imposter syndrome tend to diminish or discount their successes, managers can help them internalize their wins by reinforcing all they did to contribute to the outcome. Noticing and correcting any inaccurate self-assessments is another key strategy.
4. Be Aware of the Impact of Bias
The existence of imposter syndrome is broad-based across organizations, but it’s important to be aware of the heightened effect it has on employees from marginalized communities, who already feel like they don’t belong. When there is a lack of diversity in the workplace, those from underrepresented backgrounds can feel even more like a “fraud,” as the lack of role models compounds their feeling of not belonging.
That’s why it’s so important for organizations to address bias in all work environments, including virtual and hybrid environments. Ensure that your organization has clearly communicated company goals, actions, and commitments regarding inclusivity at all levels. A culture that addresses bias reduces imposter syndrome.
5. Engage in Mentorship and Sponsorship
Those who suffer from imposter syndrome benefit greatly from having sounding boards, advocates and brand ambassadors. Leaders can take on the role of mentors, creating a space for these individuals to share their challenges and to reassure them that these feelings are normal and can impact individuals at any level. And connecting them to sponsors can be particularly advantageous, as those who doubt themselves are less likely to be effective self-advocates. Sponsorship and mentorship are particularly important for women and particularly women of color, who often lack the opportunity to connect with senior leaders in a more organic way.
6. Be Data-Driven and Set Up Accountability Mechanisms
How can organizations reduce bias and ultimately imposter syndrome? Use a data-driven approach to measure the organization’s progress. The specific measures can be anecdotal or quantitative. For example, some companies use periodic anonymous employee sentiment surveys to provide data that can be assessed over time. Sample items could be “I feel like I belong at this organization” or “I believe I can advance beyond my current role.” The experiences from the most underrepresented groups can be a good litmus test for the inclusion levels at the company. Another example is average time to promotion–if there is a significant difference between men and women, for instance, it can cause women to believe they don’t have what it takes to advance at your organization.
Secondly, accountability is crucial to ensure real and sustainable organizational change. The measures must be fully integrated and aligned with accountability processes that are already in place. For instance, most managers are already being held responsible for the development and advancement of their people, so this data can be incorporated into their performance evaluation.
Imposter syndrome is not just an individual problem–it’s a systemic one, and the costs are high at both the individual and organizational level. As such, leaders should take a proactive role in managing imposter syndrome and address the root causes, rather than solely focusing on treating the symptoms. Managers play a key role in creating this shift by encouraging work/life boundaries, creating psychological safety and communicating expectations clearly. Senior leadership should acknowledge the role that bias plays in magnifying the effects of imposter syndrome, and use data-driven measures and systems of accountability to foster a culture of inclusion.
Ultimately, the most effective way to combat imposter syndrome is to take a holistic approach–one that simultaneously supports the individual while acknowledging that change also needs to take place at the organizational level.