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Imposter syndrome (IS). 

Have you ever heard of it? Maybe in passing…
Have you ever wondered what it really means? 

This syndrome, although newly popularized, has existed since 1978. Two psychologists – Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes – were searching to explain a phenomenon of high-achieving women and their tendency to attribute success to their good luck, instead of ability. 

However, today, IS has broadened its scope significantly. The current working definition is a “psychological phenomena in which someone experiences fear, anxiety, or self-doubt when facing new achievements” – leading to the thought that one is an ‘imposter’ rather than deserving. 

Generationally, this may be more difficult for Boomers – specifically cis white men – to understand. As younger generations find language that speaks to unspoken experiences or feelings, these conversations around IS in the workplace are more needed than ever. This is not to say IS does not affect cross-generationally. Simply that younger colleagues may be more aware of its existence and effects than Gen Xers or Boomers. 

IS can show up many different ways. Generally, it is the feeling of “Do I belong here?” For example, a young Black woman who is a new hire in a majority white-male corporate office – although deserving, capable and needed – may have an uncomfortable feeling being the only BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) in the room, leading her to feel like an ‘imposter.’ 

Workplaces that 

  • thrive on competition and comparison
  • have unclear expectations or poor communication skills
  • lack diversity and inclusivity practices and/or mentorship 

…can lead to an exacerbation of IS among employees. By addressing these issues, leaders can aid in lessening the effects of IS and, overall, create a more effective team.

This syndrome is particularly common among high-functioning people – often with ‘ natural genius’ or ‘superwomen’ complexes. This is why among BIPOC, immigrant, LGBTQ+ and women employees IS is common. As companies make strides to create more diverse workplaces, these groups have been conditioned to work twice as hard to get half the success – a common saying that speaks to this need to overachieve in order to prove your worth. Among younger talent, IS is a serious problem that established workplaces and corporate spaces need to be aware of, in order to really cultivate the best talent and most effective, inclusive spaces. 

As referenced above, there are 5 types of Imposter Syndrome. Here is an overview: 

The Perfectionist 

  • Often controlling
  • Find delegating difficult
  • Do not feel satisfied in their achievements

The Expert

  • Measure their competence on how much they know
  • Never believe they will know enough about x topic
  • Fear being exposed as inexperienced 

The Superwoman/man/person

  • Often ‘workaholics’ trying to prove they can do it all
  • Use their overachieving nature to cover up insecurities
  • Attribute their innate value to their work productivity

The Natural Genius

  • Set their internal bar impossibly high 
  • Believe they must be a master on the first try
  • Feel shame in they take longer to learn a skill

The Soloist

  • Feel a need to prove they can do things ‘on their own’
  • Find shame in asking for help or working in a team setting 

In the workplace, these IS personalities may show up in different ways. As a team leader or supervisor, it is important to watch out for these behaviors as IS can often – counterintuitively – lead to burnout and ineffectiveness. 

So, how can leaders help counteract this syndrome in the workplace? 

  • Cultivate psychological safety 
    • Make it safe for colleagues and team members to come to you and share without fear of shame or punishment.
  • Show what it means to work like a whole human
    • Productivity is the goal, but you will not get there by putting impossible expectations on your team. Remind your employees what it looks like to work hard AND set boundaries for rest and self-care.
  • Recognize people’s achievements
    • Positive reinforcement and clear communication is key in helping your team understand how they are doing and, most importantly, know when they did something well.
  • Use feedback for development
    • Criticism has to be constructive to be useful. You will find your team to be more receptive and encouraged by criticism if you frame it in terms of development, rather than failure.
  • Create a culture of inclusion
    • Diverse and inclusive workspaces are key for employees – young talent specifically – to feel that they indeed do belong. Look into your company’s DEI practices and find places where you could improve. 

Works Cited

“5 Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 19 Feb. 2020, www.businessinsider.com/5-ways-to-overcome-imposter-syndrome-in-the-workplace-2020-2. 

Abrams, Abigail. “Yes, Impostor Syndrome Is Real: Here’s How to Deal With It.” Time, Time, 20 June 2018, time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome/. 

Bayern, Macy. “Why Imposter Syndrome Persists in the Workplace, and How to Deal with It.” TechRepublic, TechRepublic, 12 Nov. 2018, www.techrepublic.com/article/why-imposter-syndrome-persists-in-the-workplace-and-how-to-deal-with-it/. 

Corkindale, Gill. “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome.” Harvard Business Review, 2 Dec. 2019, hbr.org/2008/05/overcoming-imposter-syndrome. 

M, Jessica, and Jessica MJessica is the Senior Diversity Advisor at Diversity Social. Jessica has over 10 years working with and advising employers to be more diverse. “How to Use Diversity of Thought and Cognitive Thinking to Build a Better Workplace?” Best of Diversity and Inclusion – The Definitive Portal Site | Diversity Social, 18 Dec. 1969, diversity.social/diversity-of-thought/?utm_source=rss. 

May Braaten – November 2, 2020. “‘Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace’ Event Discusses Lack of Diversity in the Workplace.” Pipe Dream, 2 Nov. 2020, www.bupipedream.com/ac/118848/auto-draft-574/. 

Wilding, Melody J. “5 Types of Imposter Syndrome and How to Stop Them.” The Muse, The Muse, 19 June 2020, www.themuse.com/advice/5-different-types-of-imposter-syndrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one.