Imposter syndrome is one of the modern workplace’s worst kept secrets. Up to 70% of professionals experience imposter syndrome, but it is yet to undergo exhaustive research in a manner that yields action points for team managers. As a result, organizations lose hours of productivity and effort, as professionals are left battling the effects of imposter syndrome on their own.
In our recent webinar, we invited Kim Meninger, a CCE Board-certified coach with 20+ years of experience, to decide what imposter syndrome looks like in the workplace. She also shared a few simple action points for tackling it and tips that could help employees experiencing imposter syndrome to better navigate their emotional response.
Click here to hear our webinar with Kim.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Despite having been around for nearly 50 years, we are often unsure about what exactly the term imposter syndrome means.
“Imposter syndrome is a term first coined in the late ’70s by a couple of psychologists studying what they initially called the imposter phenomenon. They used the term to define those feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy we might experience despite all evidence to the contrary. On paper, we're doing really well, to the outside world, we're doing a great job – but inside, we feel that sense of being a fraud,” Kim explained.
“It is not a psychological disorder. It is not a medical condition. It is just part of our own natural experience with success and failure,” she added. Indeed, destigmatizing conversations around imposter syndrome is the first step towards tackling it, and for that, one must know its definition and manifestations.
Manifestations of Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace
Surprisingly, imposter syndrome is often the most common among high achievers and type-A personalities, people you would least expect to experience self-doubt. This is because high achievers frequently challenge themselves and push themselves into new roles/positions, all the while lacking a sense of belonging.
In other words, faster than average professional progression is more likely to come with signs of imposter syndrome than slow, gradual ascension. Kim’s own experience vouches for this phenomenon: “I found myself promoted to a role where I was the youngest by far, the only woman in the room, and the only person who lacked technical skills. I would sit in meetings, feeling someone's going to ask me a question, and they're going to realize that I don't belong in this role. At times, it was crippling.”
A key sign to look out for is hesitation or self-questioning in public or collaborative environments.
There is an unwillingness to speak definitively or authoritatively about things the person knows well, as they are unsure about their level of expertise.
Kim mentioned that the problem could be more severe for women or people of color as in several cases, they are already the only one in the room, therefore feeling different. A different opinion – even when backed by expertise – accentuates this and intensifies self-doubt.
How Does Imposter Syndrome Cost Organizations?
There are several risks to letting imposter syndrome go unacknowledged or unchecked.
- Lack of cognitive diversity - Due to imposter syndrome, you could be losing out on talent that you have painstakingly acquired and nurtured. The employee feels that they can’t put up their hand for a project or participate in brainstorming, causing organizations to unwittingly ignore some great ideas.
- Time wasted on non-value adding tasks - Self-doubt leads to unending pursuit of perfection, with employees spending needless hours on crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. “We're polishing presentations. We're memorizing information. We're spending a lot of energy on tasks that are taking us away from higher value-added activities,” explained Kim.
- Micromanagement and ineffective team resource utilization - When an employee feels insecure in their role, they will try and get back to their comfort zone – which usually comprises tasks that they have mastered, delegated, and is now the onus of the larger team. They will tend to micromanage the smallest of tasks, bringing down team productivity.
- A smaller talent pipeline - As employees lack the confidence to nominate themselves for promotions or boldly showcase their expertise, they are left out of succession plans. This shrinks the available internal talent pipeline.
Finally, an indirect but significant cost is your rising healthcare expenditure. The stress and anxiety have serious physical and emotional implications, such as poor sleep, unhealthy eating habits, and a dip in self-care. “Organizations who have a critical mass of people struggling with these symptoms will face higher healthcare costs, more absenteeism, and decreased productivity,” Kim pointed out.
3 Actionable Strategies to Create a Healthy, Inclusive, and Productive Work Environment
Next, Kim looked at three simple things you can start doing to alleviate the negative effects of imposter syndrome.
- Always assume imposter syndrome
Given the staggeringly high numbers (Kim put it at 70% and studies suggest that it might be as much as 80%), it is best to move forward assuming an employee is experiencing it.
“Whenever you have someone new join the team, you have somebody taking on additional responsibility, a stretch assignment that's new, a project in an area outside of their core domain, assume that they're experiencing imposter syndrome and unwilling to share it with you because they're worried that if they do, they're exposing even further,” explained Kim. The trick is to normalize this feeling, especially at transition points.
If, like Kim, you have faced imposter syndrome in the past, share your story with the employee. “Don't ask, ‘do you need help?’ Ask, ‘how can I help?’” Kim recommended.
- Practice inclusive meetings
Employees tend to be more vulnerable during meetings than in other scenarios as a) this is where a lot of the actual work happens and b) it is also a hotbed of egregious behavior. “That's where a lot of triggers appear – people can be made to feel less about themselves if they share an idea that someone else doesn't like, they might be interrupted or talked over by others who are louder, more dominant personalities,” Kim said.
A few easy steps can make meeting participants feel more comfortable in their skin:
- Let everyone know the agenda ahead of time to enable preparedness. Kim mentioned that it is a good idea to tell newcomers something like, “I've invited you because I really want your expertise in this particular area.”
- Give everyone a voice – take a quick timeout if one or two participants start dominating the conversation. Read body language (this is particularly relevant in a WFH world) for someone leaning forward or other signs that an employee is trying to chime in.
- Check-in with each participant, in a quick, 30-second catch-up, before making a major decision during meetings.
Remember, non-inclusive meetings could make people feel like they've been shamed for sharing an idea. “They're not going to speak up again, and you're going to be deprived of their perspective, expertise, and creativity,” noted Kim.
- Rethink how you hire and promote people
The opposite of imposter syndrome, the Dunning Kruger effect, can be equally detrimental to your organization. Those experiencing the Dunning Kruger effect have an inflated sense of their own competence, which often leads them to capture the organization’s attention. However, the individual doesn’t have the skills to match their confidence, while someone with imposter syndrome but a higher degree of expertise is left out.
According to Kim, this is a common error: “We hire for confidence instead of competence. A lot of men, in particular, have a ‘swagger’ or a natural sense of confidence in their own skill set that comes across as preparedness for the job.” As a result, those demographics more likely to experience imposter syndrome like women and people of color are systematically overlooked.
Organizations must hire for competence, with the assumption of imposter syndrome, instead of hiring for confidence, therefore risking overconfidence.
Do These Emotions and/or Scenarios Sound Familiar? Take action Today
At an individual level, self-awareness and understanding can help to stave off the effects of imposter syndrome. It all goes back to why some of us feel this way in the first place.
“We all have that primitive part of our brain designed to keep us safe from threats. It does not discriminate between actual threats from predators and the threat of something like humiliation or rejection. We process it in the same way. So, when we find ourselves in a situation that triggers us (a question that we weren't expecting or commenting in a group that doesn't feel safe), we find ourselves in fight or flight mode. And we lose access to that reasoning center of our brain,” Kim broke down the subconscious thought process behind imposter syndrome.
Her tip is simple: take a deep breath and ask yourself a question that shifts one’s brain from that primitive mode to an analytical, logical, and more evolved response.
“As cliche as it sounds, deep breaths actually send a signal to your brain that you are safe (you can't do that when you're in a true threat situation). I will say very candidly that I am a high anxiety sufferer, I've always been a catastrophizer right. This tip has been incredibly helpful,” Kim said.
Fighting imposter syndrome needs proactive effort from individuals and the organization managing them, employing interventions like coaching to enable positive behavior. One of the most reliable ways to help employees overcome the feeling of impostor syndrome is with one-on-one coaching. If you’re interested in providing your managers and leaders with the best coaching available, click here to learn more about AceUp’s offerings.
Also, click here to hear our webinar with Kim now!