Managing the Imposter Syndrome at the Workplace

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Devayani Vyavaharkar
Student (University), Germany

Managing the Imposter Syndrome at the Workplace

🔥NEW Imagine yourself as an individual responsible to prepare a befitting presentation for an important client meet. This task is not at all unfamiliar to you, and since you have prepared several presentations before, your manager personally recommended your name for this job. However, even before you begin preparing the first few slides, you start questioning whether you are truly capable of handling this responsibility. You begin to worry that your presentation won't be impactful enough.

Have you ever experienced a similar situation? If yes, then chances are you may have dealt with the imposter syndrome.

What is an Imposter? Meaning

In daily use, an imposter (=impostor, both spellings are correct and equally valid) is a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others (often for fraudulent gain). Synonyms are: deceiver, trickster, cheater.
But someone with an "imposter syndrome" is no cheater at all ! Read on…

What is the Imposter Syndrome? Introduction

The Imposter Syndrome (ImSy) was first identified by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. It is a cognitive bias that refers to 'an individual's perceived internal belief of not being competent enough compared to what others perceive one to be.' In other words, the individual has a self-perceived notion of 'intellectual phoniness.' The individual strongly believes that one's success is due to external factors (e.g., sheer luck) instead of attributing it to their own talent, potential or qualification. Hence, such individuals are always fearful that their luck will run out and they will be exposed as being a fraud.
For instance, some candidates going for a job interview may be questioning their qualification for the position they are applying for, despite having an existing skillset and expertise that precisely fits the job requirements. Additionally, while responding to the interview questions, such candidates are certain that their responses are not honest but fake, and the interviewers may expose them as being phony.
Remember: A person with ImSy is not actually a cheater. On the contrary, they are afraid they will be perceived as one!

What are the Signs of an Imposter Syndrome at Work?

  1. Inability to accept praise and appreciation. The individual often tries to avoid constructive feedback.
  2. Overachieving or focusing on one's work till the point of burnout and exhaustion.
  3. Inability to realistically evaluate one's actual level of skills and competence.
  4. The individual frequently attributes success to external factors such as luck. Low self-efficacy and self-worth.
  5. Fear of not being able to live up to the expectations of colleagues or superiors.
  6. The individual gets easily distressed at the smallest flaw or the slightest mistake one may have made and cannot let that go easily.
  7. Self-doubt and refusal to ask for help or advice from others since they believe the others may find out that one is incompetent and lacks skills. Such individuals often declines new opportunities to excel at work due to the fear of failure, and thus sabotage their own success.

How can Managers Deal with the Imposter Syndrome Among Employees?

Basically overcoming ImSy means changing the person's mindset about their own abilities and performances. Some attention points are:
  1. PROMOTE PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY: This refers to establishing the belief and trust held by individuals that they won't be rejected or humiliated for speaking up regarding their ideas or even when pointing out mistakes. Managers could promote the same through open interactions to make employees understand how innovation and risk-taking are usually accompanied by certain levels of fear. Employees should be made aware that they won't be judged as incompetent when they don't have solutions. Instead, it could be the driver of innovative and creative solutions.
  2. MAKE EMPLOYEES REALIZE THE ADVERSE EFFECTS: Individuals with ImSy are characterized by perfectionism and overachievement. Managers could help employees realize the adverse effects this may have on their physical and mental health, thus deteriorating their performance. It will help team members thrive when they realize they are valued for their efforts and achievements. Such tactics could be started by managers themselves using effective stress management techniques or acknowledging the limits of every employee's capability.
  3. PROVIDE FEEDBACK: Proper usage of feedback at the right time helps employees realize the expectations they are supposed to meet. This will help employees become aware of their potential and capabilities and eliminate doubt that they could have regarding themselves.
  4. ENCOURAGE EMPLOYEES TO TAKE NEW OPPORTUNITIES: Employees with ImSy decline new assignments and opportunities due to fear of failure. In such scenarios, managers could make employees see the brighter side of their challenges and motivate them to be more innovative. It may be difficult for employees to adapt themselves to unfamiliar duties or responsibilities. Hence, understanding and compassion shown by managers could go a long way.
Employees themselves could play a crucial role in dealing with the experience of ImSy at work. Firstly, they should stop comparing their achievements to others and realize that every employee has unique skills and competence rather than constant self-doubt. Employees with ImSy are often fixated on their flaws and weaknesses. Instead, they should try to focus more on the strengths they have. Furthermore, instead of focusing on their mistakes, employees should focus on their achievements and wins. This could increase their motivation and help them realize their own potential.

I hope you found these main ways to tackle an imposter syndrome useful.
⇨ Please leave a comment if you can tell more or have experiences with ImSy.
Clance, Pauline R. and Imes, Suzanne A. (1978), "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention", Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. 15 (3): 241–247.
D'Anzica, E. (2021, August 24), "3 keys to shattering your imposter syndrome", Forbes.
Wilding, M. (2020, February 19). "5 ways to overcome imposter syndrome in the Workplace", Business Insider.


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