Overcoming workplace imposter syndrome

January 31, 2023

Many high-achieving employees describe feelings of self-doubt and not being intellectually capable to do their jobs. These feelings can be classified as “imposter syndrome” and it is a persistent issue among career women. A KPMG survey of 750 female executives in 2020 found that “seventy-five percent reported experiencing imposter syndrome at some point in their careers.” 

In a paper for MIT Sloan Management Review, Professor Morela Hernandez, faculty director of the Leadership Initiative, and Christina Lacerenza, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Colorado Boulder, note, “High-achieving employees who belong to a minority or marginalized group — across gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and/or economic class categories — are particularly at risk of suffering from imposter syndrome, which can impair well-being and inhibit performance.”

They go on to explain how managers can help employees turn these imposter fears into fleeting thoughts rather than permanent restraints in the workplace. “To retain high achievers, managers need to understand and respond to their unique challenges, of which imposter syndrome can be one,” they note. “Fortunately, research shows that the negative effects of imposter syndrome can be mitigated through organizational and social support.”

The authors suggest that managers can recognize imposter syndrome in their organization, including emotional exhaustion, burnout, work-family conflict, decreased job satisfaction, and low self-esteem. “Ironically, employees with high levels of merit are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome,” they write. “For example, about 30% of medical residents experience it.”

People experiencing imposter syndrome can experience anxiety, and exhibit obsessive-compulsive behaviors. They can manifest those feelings through checking that tasks are correct more than necessary, feeling uneasy when routines are disrupted, over-preparing for a challenging task, or procrastinating initially and then preparing the task in a frenzy. These reactions connect studies that have demonstrated that people experiencing imposter syndrome may use self-handicapping behavior in situations where outcomes are uncertain.

There are several concrete steps that the authors recommend that managers take to support an employee experiencing imposter syndrome.

  • “Talk about it.” Managers should initiate conversations with their high-achieving employees through a structured list of questions to determine whether they are experiencing imposter syndrome. 
  • “Reframe syndrome as thoughts.” Managers and employees can come up with an action plan to decrease the frequency and consistency of imposter syndrome thoughts, especially whenever triggers occur.
  • “Challenge and then reframe imposter thoughts.” Managers can let employees know that imposter thoughts are not inherently self-damaging or self-destructive and in fact can help a person recognize what skills they need to invest in.
  • “Help with career planning.” Managers can provide employees a more positive and realistic evaluation of their abilities through creating career goals, exploring options and opportunities, and crafting a multistep plan to reach those objectives.
  • “Challenge stereotypes about what constitutes competence.” Managers must avoid comments that reinforce a narrow image of success.
  • “Develop psychological safety in your work environment.” Managers should foster a work culture that values the whole person rather than their competence-related success.
  • “Check your bias when allocating rewards and assignments.” Managers cannot fall prey to biases where they fail to provide demanding projects to women and employees of color and rather should provide challenging assignments to employees from underrepresented groups as it shows respect for their capabilities.

The authors conclude by noting how imposter syndrome in the workplace can be phased out over time. “As the workplace evolves, as equality becomes increasingly achievable, and as managers hone their skills to properly identify and support their employees’ psychological experience of the workplace, we believe imposter syndrome will loosen its grip.”

You can see the full article here: How to Help High Achievers Overcome Imposter Syndrome, MIT Sloan Management Review, January 23, 2023