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Imposter Syndrome

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome is the belief that any success or achievements are not down to personal skills, efforts, or ability. It is, basically, the belief that you are an imposter in your role – undeserving of it and, therefore, at risk of being discovered as a fraud. Those with Imposter Syndrome put their positions -and any achievements- down to pure luck. Or, as some might feel, dumb luck!

It may feel like a new concept, but the phrase was coined by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Clance in the 1970s. Initially thought to apply primarily to high-achieving women, the condition is now recognised as experienced far more widely, regardless of age, gender or work role.

And if it rings a bell of recognition for you, you’re not alone. It is estimated that 70% of people will experience a little Imposter Syndrome at some stage in their lives.

Why is it a threat to my business?

Employees who experience Imposter Syndrome are likely to be under-confident and may even suffer with anxiety.

Typical manifestations of Imposter Syndrome include:

  • Overworking themselves to make up for the inadequacies the feel.

  • Setting exceedingly high goals for themselves and then feeling crushed when they’re not met.

  • Never being satisfied with their level of knowledge or understanding, and consistently trying to learn more.

  • Never being happy with a piece of work and fixating on flaws instead of strengths; delaying the submission of work because it’s never quite good enough.

  • Preferring to work alone so as not to reveal perceived inadequacies; refusing to ask for help, even from peers, for fear of appearing incompetent.

If Imposter Syndrome is severe enough, it can become a vicious cycle. For example, a sufferer may work extra hard the night before a meeting, over-preparing for it so as not to be “discovered as an imposter”. Having survived that meeting unscathed, they will either believe that it was due purely to the extra prep’ or just plain good luck on this occasion. Either way, that lack of self-belief will result in more of the same anxiety-led hard work next time. And the time after. And the time after that. The only destination is burnout. Or the anxiety growing into depression.

Even a mild or subdued case of Imposter Syndrome will result in reduced collaboration or a reluctance to share ideas and suggestions. It can also result in people procrastinating and delaying submissions of work, or plodding along blindly alone instead of seeking the help and guidance they need.

None of this is good for productivity, welfare and wellbeing, or a happy workforce.

What can employers do to alleviate it?

It’s true that the more extreme examples of Imposter Syndrome may require a little self-help by those suffering with it. Mindtools has some good advice for sufferers.

However, employers and leaders can minimise its occurrence, its influence, and its disruption by ensuring they operate a robust comms strategy that focuses on feedback, recognition and support.

Imposter Syndrome is borne out of self-doubt. Therefore, regular and meaningful feedback and recognition are crucial to combat that. If sufferers regularly hear that they have done a good job, they may just start to believe it and realise their worth. If that feedback and recognition is instantaneous upon completing a task, even better, as the association between the praise and the task is stronger. (This is in line with the needs of your younger workers, anyway, as 97% of Gen Z workers are receptive to receiving feedback “on an ongoing basis or after completing a task”.)

A peer-to-peer recognition platform that facilitates and encourages colleagues to recognise each other for the good they do can also help immensely. Aside from being a fun, light-hearted way to encourage team work and nurture a sense of community, such a platform encourages the recognition of actions or efforts even if they don’t necessarily result in a financial target being hit or some other traditional or tangible benefit to the business being realised.

Instilling a feeling of psychological safety across your workforce will also help to allay those feelings of unworthiness – people need to know for sure that they will not face ridicule, mocking or belittlement for offering up ideas.

Those feeling like an imposter need reminding that they are experiencing successes or achievements at work – the ones they endlessly attribute to luck. The more they are made to see that these achievements are their own, are frequent, and are recognised as valuable by their leaders and their peers, the better they will start to feel about themselves. And if we can show them that what they are doing is in line with the contributions of their colleagues and the expectations of the business, the less of a grip that imposter will have.


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