Feel like an imposter at work? You are not alone.
A 2020 study found up to 82% of people struggle with the sense they are a fraud or haven’t earned what they’ve achieved.
Imposter syndrome is defined as “persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success.”
These feelings can contribute to increased anxiety and depression, less risk-taking in careers, social withdrawal and over-stretching to the point of burnout.
Imposter Phenomenon, as it was originally named, was identified in a 1978 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.
Their study, which focused on high-achieving women, found that “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
A key issue surrounding imposter syndrome is that the blame was laid at the individual as opposed to the historical and structural systems in place which caused it.
It has become such a widespread issue today that new thinking and strategies both in the treatment and addressing the cause have had to come to the fore.
We interviewed Coaching and Clinical Psychologist Cass Middleton, to discover more about contemporary trends and issues in identifying and managing imposter syndrome.
What has changed in workplace thoughts and feelings towards imposter syndrome?
These days, the term ‘imposter syndrome’ is commonplace in modern day organisations, and their employees appear to be more mindful of this syndrome and its effects. This awareness seems to have led to a range of organisational responses including mentoring programs and active changes to language and culture, encouraging diversity and normalising challenges.
When employees feel supported, there is naturally more of a willingness to acknowledge and address their own experiences of imposter syndrome, which is a critical first step.
How big an issue is imposter syndrome in the modern world?
It is common in the workplace and research data indicates it does not discriminate based on gender or age. Many of the clients I work with experience imposter syndrome on some level, so it remains a key issue for workplace performance and wellbeing.
Some of the most successful and well known individuals such as Michelle Obama and Atlassian billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes have directly acknowledged their own experiences with imposter syndrome.
In our modern, highly connected world, there are so many more opportunities for self comparison, and this is a common trigger for symptoms of imposter syndrome.
So what are some warning signs that people may be experiencing it?
Individuals experiencing imposter syndrome may present with low levels of confidence at work, low self-esteem, they may be self-critical when making small mistakes, have a fear of failure or avoid participating fully in meetings. We may also see an increase in sick days, and either under or over performance.
If not addressed, people may find themselves overworking to compensate for their perceived limitations, and this may eventually lead to symptoms of burnout.
For others, it may mean attributing their personal success to external factors, avoiding going for that next promotion, or applying for a particular job. People can at times find themselves stuck in a rut of their minds and stagnant in their roles or careers.
Is there a willingness in society to address the systemic causes of imposter syndrome?
Yes, I hope so. Modern organisational leaders like Canva strive for diverse workplaces and are deliberately attempting to ease imposter syndrome by encouraging diversity in their job descriptions – for example, they will encourage those who don’t hold all of the qualifications to still apply. This is something that people suffering from imposter syndrome may not even think to do.
Are there any barriers to identifying and effectively treating it?
In order to identify and manage symptoms of imposter syndrome, organisational cultures need to shift. Encouraging equality, incorporating clear feedback into review cycles and designing transparent role descriptions, as well as making space for acknowledging personal feelings of inadequacy are all helpful places to start.
In sharing and normalising these challenges we can make way for meaningful conversations and a sense of shared experience. These conversations will only take place if people feel they can safely be vulnerable, and without that, change will be difficult.
Another barrier may also be the capacity of organisations to dedicate time and resources to managing imposter syndrome. When done well, and with proper investment, mentorship and coaching programs can be a useful and efficient way of combating imposter syndrome in the workplace through providing support and development opportunities where necessary.
If you need further assistance with coaching individually or within your organisation to address these emerging mental health issues, The Mind Room offers TMR Coach as a bespoke service, designed to cultivate impactful leaders and high performers.
TMR Coach, our coaching service designed to provide clarity and perspective for leaders, teams and businesses. Support your people to lead, perform, think well, feel confident and make great decisions.
Growth Mindset, our professional workshop for organisations covering how your mind can hold you back or propel you forward when it comes to achieving your goals including how to approach challenges, failure, beliefs, motivation and feedback.
The secret to silencing your inner critic, by The Mind Room
Growing great mindsets, by Dr Jo Mitchell
Online Library, The Mind Room