The feeling that you’ve gamed the system – that you don’t really deserve your successes – is surprisingly common in the modern workforce. People of all backgrounds, in all industries, grapple with it every day. It can lead to crippling perfectionism, inability to take credit for achievements, and lingering doubt over one’s professional abilities. It can even make people reluctant to voice really good ideas.
This feeling, known as “imposter syndrome,” was first identified in the 1970s, when researchers noticed a pattern among female students at a prestigious graduate school. Despite their demonstrably high levels of achievement, a large number described feelings of being phoney, lucky, deceptive, a fluke, or otherwise undeserving of the roles and opportunities they had rightfully earned.
For obvious and justified reasons, imposter syndrome is often discussed in the context of gender equality in the workplace. Pauline Rose Clance, one of the researchers who coined the term “imposter syndrome,” originally thought it was a gendered problem. But she later agreed – and a growing body of research confirms – that imposter syndrome is widespread among women and men.
“If I could do it all over again,” Clance said in an interview, “I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”
Imposter syndrome is even noticeable among executives, who are usually thought to be the most self-assured and confident members of an organisation. Indeed, the prevalence of imposter syndrome among high achievers is part of what makes it so interesting (and worrisome) from a management perspective.
So where does imposter syndrome come from?
Thousands of books, articles, and blogs have worked hard to answer that question – but as Clance has pointed out, there is no clinical basis for imposter syndrome. Much of what’s said is anecdotal; but a common theme is that people who experience imposter syndrome are more likely to be driven, determined, and detail-oriented. Rather than rest on their laurels, high achievers look ahead to the next milestone.
If these sound like desirable qualities, it’s because they are! High achievers are innately dissatisfied – they’re hardwired to reach higher, push harder, go beyond what’s expected. Without individuals like this, how could high performing teams be possible?
But there’s another, more problematic side to that coin: Insecurity. The idea that success breeds confidence is true in many ways – but self-doubt rides on the coattails of new accomplishments and challenges.
A quote from Aristotle – “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know” – is frequently used in this context. No matter how far up the ladder some people climb, they’ll always wonder if they really earned it.
Aside from the internal mechanics of imposter syndrome (which can be far-reaching and speculative), external factors can play a role. Organisations with highly competitive cultures will often see higher levels of imposter syndrome in the workforce. When employees constantly evaluate their performance in comparison to others, a feedback loop of anxiety can develop. Instead of raw talent, the organisation gets a calculated, frenetic, or stifled performance.
Acts of favouritism and exclusion take a toll. A lack of diversity, and the absence of meaningful mentorship opportunities, can further exacerbate the problem. With the challenges of COVID and remote work, people and organisations may be even more susceptible to imposter syndrome and the costly dysfunction it creates over time.
What can we do to alleviate imposter syndrome?
The first step is to recognise the prevalence of imposter syndrome – or as the scholar who coined that term now calls it, the imposter experience. Some degree of self-doubt is normal and healthy in the workplace, and we all experience it to one degree or another. To feel that we have arrived, and that all of our goals will certainly be accomplished, cuts against the work ethic and innovative spirit that drives organisations forward.
But the imposter experience, left unchecked, hampers organisational performance in too many ways to count. Transparent communication practices, robust feedback mechanisms, and mentorship opportunities can help foster a healthier, more trustworthy workplace. Above all, an inclusive and validating work culture will empower people to speak, collaborate, and take risks without debilitating feelings of fraudulence or inadequacy.
In terms of organisational performance, the simple things are often the most powerful; such as making sure every employee knows that they belong, that they’ve earned it, and that ideas – bad ones, good ones, unconventional ones – are the fuel that drives us all forward.