How to Identify & Overcome Imposter Syndrome at Work
Have you ever felt like a fraud? Even though you’re putting in the work and making progress, there’s still this nagging feeling that you’re inadequate. A secret failure.
If so, you’ve experienced what’s known as imposter syndrome. And it’s more common than you think.
Up to 82% of people struggle with the sense that they haven’t earned their achievements, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re “found out.” Interestingly enough, it’s usually high-achieving people (and often people with underrepresented identities—more on that later) who contend with imposter syndrome.
We’ll walk you through what it means to have imposter syndrome, how employees can work through negative thinking, and how leaders can create more supportive environments. Readers: check out our shareable book list for even more resources!
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, imposter syndrome or “imposter phenomenon” occurs among high-achievers who attribute their success to luck rather than ability. They’re unable to accept or internalize their accomplishments, and their self-doubt can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and isolation.
Imposter Syndrome for Women & Minority Groups
One of the things Imes and Clance theorized was that women were uniquely affected by imposter syndrome. In a 2020 KPMG study, 75% of executive women reported they had personally experienced imposter syndrome, and 74% believed their male counterparts did not experience feelings of self-doubt as much as female leaders.
Is imposter syndrome the main reason women distrust their success? More recent sources note that early studies about imposter syndrome failed to consider the impact of systemic racism, classism, and gender bias. A lack of historical and cultural context makes it easier to blame individuals rather than the places they work—and the systems at play.
“When you are achieving in a system that is at odds with who you are … there’s bound to be a certain amount of inner tension.” -Valerie Young, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women
Like women and nonbinary people, ethnic minorities are underrepresented in workplace environments in the U.S., which can lead to increased feelings of insecurity and self-doubt that correspond with what we think of as “imposter syndrome.”
In order to combat these patterns in negative thinking, leaders must foster a culture where diverse ethnic, racial, and gender identities—and a variety of leadership styles—are equally valued and acknowledged. In an ideal world, women and nonbinary people, BIPOC, and members of the LGBTQ+ community wouldn’t have to worry about being perceived as less “professional” than their white, masculine counterparts.
With gender equality specifically, author Ruchika Tulshyan notes in The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace that engaging women and underrepresented people in the workforce is not only about human rights—it also promotes economic growth and high-level innovation. Diversity isn’t just the “right” thing to do. It’s financially savvy. Furthermore, inclusion needs to be part of a company’s culture rather than just the hiring process.
“Financial performance alone may not be the only way to assess the positive impact of a diverse team. A new body of research shows the next frontier of innovation is about diversity of thought and it is essential for a company to retain its competitive advantage.” -Ruchika Tulshyan, The Diversity Advantage
Of course, leaders must foster an environment that boosts job satisfaction and retains these employees. Otherwise, what we experience as “imposter syndrome” can take the lead, harming both individuals and organizations at large.
Signs & Symptoms
Curious if you have imposter syndrome? There are tests you can take to find out (though chances are, if this is resonating with you so far, you’re part of the club). Here are some signs of imposter syndrome you can look for:
- You’re giving it your all. 100% of the time. Although this can lead to burnout and a total lack of work-life balance, you feel like there’s no alternative.
- You’re super tough on yourself. You struggle so much with perfectionism, even minor mistakes are unacceptable.
- You feel unworthy of your position. You think you don’t have what it takes and that you’re somehow fooling people by only seeming to do a good job.
- You think your coworkers have all their sh*t together. Everyone seems so successful in comparison!
- You can’t take a compliment. Your inner critic is so loud, they drown out even the highest of praise.
- You also can’t take constructive criticism. You’re hyper-sensitive to anything that reinforces your feelings of inadequacy.
Ultimately, imposter syndrome holds you back in your career. Consistent fear and doubt can lead to procrastination, productivity addiction (an easy trap to fall into amidst “hustle culture”), and even self-fulfilling prophecies.
The good news is that these beliefs can be unlearned. Here are some strategies that can help employees who want to challenge their own thinking, and leaders who want to create a more inclusive, supportive workplace.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Three Strategies That Can Help
There are a number of ways to combat imposter syndrome, from cultivating self-compassion to sharing feelings and failures. We've narrowed the list down to our top three.
Creatives can be especially prone to feelings of inadequacy. The truth is, every artist and creative person has a pesky, lying inner critic: You’ll never be good enough. Everyone else is better than you. Maybe you should just give up!
If this hits home, we recommend checking out Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk by Danielle Krysa. Loaded with relatable anecdotes and helpful exercises, Krysa’s book introduces the truths we must face in order to conquer self-doubt. She notes that, while we all have that negative self-talk (and it will always be there, although there are ways to turn down the volume), we also have the power to choose whether or not to be creative. The only way to “fail” is by not creating.
“We all get blocked. We are all plagued by an inner critic. And no one is immune to the creativity-halting effects of negative criticism.” -Danielle Krysa, Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk
Krysa also reminds readers that jealousy is a natural occurrence, but we can use it to our advantage. If you’re jealous of someone else’s work or skill set, ask them questions! Forge new connections that inspire your work and encourage creativity rather than stifling it.
Leaders: Promote psychological safety. Create spaces for employees to share ideas, brainstorm, and let loose—without fear of rejection or ridicule. Remember that diversity of thought is essential for great ideas to take shape.
>Prioritize Mental Health
While imposter syndrome isn’t an official diagnosis you’d find in the DSM, it can still lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Challenges at work only increase the risk of self-doubt, stress, and feelings of isolation.
In our leadership resource, “Leadership & COVID-19,” we explore scenarios that can trigger what psychotherapist and bestselling author Joyce Marter calls “Workplace PTSD”—the “different emotional, cognitive, and physical challenges people experience when they have difficulty coping with negative, abusive, or traumatic aspects of their jobs.”
Some examples include employees feeling overwhelmed because they weren’t trained properly, but are still expected to perform as if they were; the pressure to respond to team messages 24/7; and leaders failing to communicate a company’s stance on world events like racial injustice, social injustice, or global warfare.
“Someone suffering from the emotional and physical warning signals of depression and anxiety needs to be noticed and listened to. Their pain, which is very real, needs to be acknowledged, and they need help learning how to problem-solve and manage their minds. They need to tell their story, and we need to listen.” -Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, Dr. Caroline Leaf
Workplace PTSD can manifest as irritability, angry outbursts, withdrawal, a lack of concentration, and/or self-destructive behavior. While employees have some level of control over how they respond to negative experiences at work, it’s primarily up to the people in charge to make sure mental health is addressed at work.
Leaders: Make sure employees have access to mental health care via your health plan. Inform your team about the resources they can use to cope with mental health issues. And encourage people to unplug so they can recharge and bring their best selves to work.
How do you treat yourself when you make a mistake? If you beat yourself up for even the smallest missteps, it’s time for a healthy dose of self-compassion.
That’s easier said than done, especially for those of us with loud, overbearing inner critics and tendencies towards perfectionism. So where do we start? Try to notice when those negative thoughts crop up, and respond to them as if you were talking to a dear friend. Be kind, encouraging, and supportive. Even if it feels unnatural at first.
Dr. Brené Brown, an American research professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host who describes herself as a “recovering perfectionist and an aspiring good-enoughist,” offers a wealth of insights and information in her work. In The Gifts of Imperfection, she notes that perfectionism is a roadblock to authenticity. We fool ourselves into thinking that, as long as we do everything “perfectly,” we won’t have to experience shame or judgment.
Brown recommends offsetting perfectionism by assessing your own level of self-compassion. If your tank is running low, try her morning mantra: “Today, I’m going to believe that showing up is good enough.”
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Employing a “growth mindset” can also help foster self-compassion. American psychologist Carol Dweck explores this idea in her book, Mindset (another one of our go-tos). If you view challenges as opportunities to grow, you have a growth mindset. If, instead, you see them as impossible obstacles, you have what’s called a “fixed mindset.”
Embracing challenges, finding meaning in them, and drawing inspiration from others—instead of feeling threatened by them—can help you nurture the kind of growth that makes it easier to encourage yourself when you need it most.
Leaders: Set an example for employees by cultivating compassion for yourself. Promote a growth mindset within your team. Pay attention to your own inner critic and perfectionist, and avoid rewarding these kinds of behaviors in others.
Don’t Let Imposter Syndrome Hold You Back
We hope you found these insights about imposter syndrome helpful, whether you’re an employee combating a tough inner critic or a leader striving to establish an inclusive, diverse, psychologically safe environment for your people.
If you’re curious what other authors and experts have to say, bookmark our book list for fresh perspectives.