How to overcome imposter syndrome at work
Last updated on: September 12, 2022
What do Natalie Portman, David Bowie, and Michelle Obama have in common?
Believe it or not, at some point in their lives, they have all struggled with that nagging belief that they’re frauds whose success is a result of luck, not their talents.
In other words, they’ve all experienced imposter syndrome.
The imposter phenomenon impacts people worldwide, regardless of their occupation, age, gender, or race. According to the mini-research I did on LinkedIn, 95% of participants said they have experienced imposter syndrome — both women and men.
But, what can we do about it?
Is there a way to overcome this terrible feeling?
How to deal with imposter syndrome at work?
Can managers help us combat the imposter phenomenon?
That’s exactly what we’re trying to figure out in this blog post. So, if you have ever experienced such a feeling or you know someone who has, stick around.
Table of Contents
What is imposter syndrome?
The imposter syndrome, also known as the imposter phenomenon or imposter experience, refers to a feeling of self-doubt about our work accomplishments. We may feel like imposters when we believe we don’t deserve our jobs and success. Thus, we feel like a fraud in the workplace.
Let’s see how the syndrome was first defined and what is now considered an imposter phenomenon.
What was imposter syndrome in the 70s?
Researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes were the first to describe the term in the late 70s, in their study The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.
Here’s how they defined imposter syndrome:
“The term impostor phenomenon is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.”
In the aforementioned research, the authors analyzed 150 highly successful women — women who hold PhDs in various specialties and are respected professionals in their fields.
But, despite their incredible expertise and knowledge, these women didn’t have an internal feeling of success.
Instead, they felt like imposters.
What is now considered imposter syndrome?
As stated by today’s definitions, apart from feeling like a fraud, the imposter phenomenon is linked with feelings of inadequacy.
According to Dr. Gena Cox, an organizational psychologist, executive coach, and author of the upcoming book Leading Inclusion, imposter syndrome has two components:
- The feelings of inadequacy that can come from one’s own psychological makeup, and
- The feelings of inadequacy that can develop as a response to environmental factors.
She further explains that, in the workplace, the external factors are amplified — because of the power and influence dynamics.
Thus, people tend to compare themselves to those they perceive as having more power and influence than they do.
Now, despite the term “syndrome”, imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable disorder of any kind, according to Carolyn Herfurth, a co-founder of Impostor Syndrome Institute, who we had the chance to speak to about the subject.
Here’s how Carolyn defines imposter syndrome:
“It’s this belief that millions of people worldwide share — that they are not as talented, intelligent, capable, or qualified as others think they are. And, the fascinating thing about it, is that these feelings exist despite all the evidence of our accomplishments — diplomas, awards, business growth, promotion.”
The most common signs of imposter syndrome
Now, let’s see what the most common symptoms of imposter syndrome are.
In general, you’re experiencing the imposter phenomenon if:
- You tend to overwork — to stay late or go to work early every day, just to prove yourself that you’re enough — which can lead to career burnout.
- You blame and criticize yourself for minor mistakes.
- You’re feeling like a fraud who’s fooling the people around you — your coworkers and boss, and you fear you’ll be exposed.
- You believe that your colleagues are organized and have everything under control, unlike you.
- You can’t seem to accept praise because you feel that your work is not good enough, even though others say it is.
- You think that your job defines you.
- You feel uneasy asking for help.
- You can’t seem to start or finish your projects.
- You’re rejecting new opportunities.
Additionally, this is how the authors Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes described this phenomenon in the study on the imposter syndrome in high achieving women:
- Women believe that they are not intelligent — instead, they are sure that they have fooled anyone who finds them intelligent.
- Women claim that their high examination scores are a result of misgrading or simply luck.
Speaking of accomplishments, Carolyn highlights that imposter syndrome is tied mainly to the achievement arena.
That’s why we need to distinguish between not feeling self-worth in general and feeling like an imposter at work.
According to Carolyn, self-worth is the general sense of how we feel about ourselves, that overall sense. On the other hand, imposter syndrome is linked to a specific area of self-worth — the achievement area.
Not sure whether you have imposter syndrome characteristics? Dr. Pauline Rose Clance created the test that can help you find out.
What causes imposter syndrome?
Since Carolyn Herfurth works on educating executives and employees worldwide on what imposter syndrome is, we asked her to tell us more about the main triggers for the imposter phenomenon.
Carolyn refers to Valerie Young, another co-founder of the Impostor Syndrome Institute, and her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.
In this book, Valerie Young talks about some causes of the imposter syndrome, which we’ll now explain.
Cause #1: Family messages and expectations
Carolyn points out that one of the causes of the imposter syndrome are family messages and expectations — i.e. how different families have different expectations from their children.
“Let’s say that you’re the kid who comes home with 4 As and one B on your report card. And your family’s response is: ‘What is that B doing there?’
So, that might create the message that everything you do has to be perfect. And all the kid really wants is praise — because, for kids, praise is like oxygen.”
On the other hand, Carolyn adds, other families may have diverse reactions.
“In another family, when you come home with straight As, your family may not even acknowledge that. It might be so because, for this family, success is defined as you growing up to be part of a family business. Or, just getting married and popping up grandkids. Or going into the military. It’s always a little different.”
Cause #2: Confidence gaps between genders
Carolyn continues that another cause is the confidence gap between people who identify as men and people who identify as women.
“When they’re in their 20s or 30s, women don’t have as much confidence as men. They get a little more confident in their 40s and 50s, and by their 60s, women are like: ‘We’re more confident than men.’ ”
Cause #3: A lack of diversity
Is your culture inclusive? That’s another aspect to consider when talking about the main causes of the imposter experience.
Carolyn gives an example:
“If you walk into a room and nobody else looks like you or sounds like you, you’re not going to feel the same sense of belonging as you might when you walk into a room where everybody does look and sound like you.”
Carolyn highlights that diversity also refers to different age groups.
“Valerie did a talk at Facebook. When she asked people: ‘Have you ever felt underestimated because you were the youngest person in the room or the oldest person in the room’, the thirty-year-olds raised their hands about feeling underestimated, as the oldest people in the room. So, it’s all relative.”
Cause #4: Increased pressure due to working in specific industries
Now, this source of imposter syndrome refers to people working in specific industries, like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), which is a rapidly evolving field.
“People in tech often feel like they have to keep up with all the latest technology developments — and that’s impossible. People in fields like STEM might have a sense of that.”
In Carolyn’s opinion, these are the industries that can trigger the imposter feeling — the feeling that you don’t belong or don’t measure up.
The 5 types of impostors
According to Valerie Young’s research, we can distinguish between 5 types of imposters:
- The Perfectionist,
- The Expert,
- The Soloist,
- The Natural Genius, and
- The SuperHuman.
Imposter type #1: The Perfectionist
This type of impostor focuses on how something is done.
Even a minor mistake — no matter the fact that the rest of the performance is impeccable — can make this imposter feel failure and shame.
Imposter type #2: The Expert
Unlike the Perfectionist, the Expert aims attention to what and how much they know or can do.
Since Experts believe that they should know everything, when mistakes occur, even minor ones, they experience shame and failure.
Imposter type #3: The Soloist
The primary concern for Soloists is who performs tasks.
They think that they should do everything on their own. Thus, Soloists believe that asking for help, tutoring, or coaching, clearly indicates failure that causes shame.
Imposter type #4: The Natural Genius
For Natural Genius, it’s not only important how and when you’ll accomplish your goals. This type of imposter believes that finishing a task quickly is a sign of one’s competence.
So, struggling to improve skills or failing to finish an assignment on the first try means failure for them, which further causes shame.
Imposter type #5: The SuperHuman
SuperHumans focus on how many roles they can juggle and be successful in.
These roles usually include being:
- A partner,
- A parent,
- A friend,
- An employee,
- A volunteer, etc.
When they fail in some areas, they feel ashamed — because they believe you need to excel in all roles at all times.
If you’d like to find out what type of imposter applies to you, the 5 types of imposter syndrome test can help you find out.
How common is imposter syndrome in the workplace?
Studies by Gail Matthews, KPMG, and Kajabi, presented on the Imposter Syndrome Institute website, show that:
- 70% of successful people said they felt like imposters at some point in their lives.
- 75% of executive women claim that they’ve struggled with the imposter phenomenon.
- 84% of entrepreneurs and small business owners say that they’ve felt like imposters at some point in their lives.
In the 2021 State of the Workplace Report, which gathered 802 respondents, we can see that 96% of people were dealing with imposter syndrome at work.
How common is imposter syndrome across genders?
Now, what about genders?
Do women experience imposter syndrome more than men?
Here are the findings we found in the LeadMD research:
- Nearly the same percentage of men (16.1%) and women (17.1%) say they feel they’re performing unsatisfactorily at work.
- Almost the same percentage of men and women (19% of men and 20.7% of women) feel pressured to work longer to prove their commitment to work.
So, according to this study, there’s almost no difference between genders when it comes to imposter syndrome.
When I asked her about how different genders experience imposter syndrome, Carolyn Herfurth confirmed that it’s just a myth that only women deal with the imposter phenomenon — men do experience it, too.
However, there are some differences.
“These are current expectations — men are expected to perform their job.
Women are also expected to perform and excel at work. But, they’re also expected to excel as a parent, as a spouse, at taking care of their home, and dealing with her parents — all while maintaining a rock-hard body.
In other words: we, women, have more areas of achievement in our lives to feel badly about. So, the bar is set higher for women than it is for men.”
Carolyn continues that, generally speaking, women care very deeply about the quality of their work. And, because of that, they might exhibit more perfectionist tendencies.
Are some employees more prone to feel like imposters?
In short — no.
As explained in the TED-Ed video on imposter syndrome, it’s not only the highly skilled employees who experience the imposter phenomenon.
In fact, everyone is likely to be influenced by the phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance. The term is defined in the study on pluralistic ignorance:
“Pluralistic ignorance is the (incorrect) belief that one’s personal attitudes are different from the majorities’ attitudes, and thus, one goes along with what they think others think.”
For example, let’s say you are listening to a quite complicated lecture in a classroom. After some time, the lecturer asks if anyone has any questions about the subject. You look around you and nobody’s raising their hands. So, even though you don’t quite understand the lecture, you don’t want to raise your hand because you believe you’ll look foolish. Since no one raised their hands, you believe that they all comprehend the lecture.
Let’s tie this to the imposter experience.
It’s difficult to know whether our peers doubt themselves, how difficult they find tasks, and how hard they work. Thus, we can’t let go of feelings that we’re less capable than our peers — which can make anyone feel like a fraud.
Tips for overcoming imposter syndrome at work
Now that we’ve seen that many employees feel like frauds at some point in their lives, the obvious question is — how to deal with imposter syndrome at work?
Luckily, in the following lines, we gathered some invaluable tips on how to get over imposter syndrome at work.
Tip #1: Recognize your emotions and make a list of accomplishments
To find the most effective way to deal with imposter syndrome at work, we reached out to Amy Clark, Founder and Executive Coach at Growth Minded Leadership Group.
In her opinion, the first step to overcoming imposter syndrome at work is recognizing emotions and fears — and then naming them.
“By doing this, you are redirecting your brain to facts and reclaiming your power over these emotions and fears. Building your understanding of emotions helps you become wiser in your response to them.”
Next, Amy recommends making a list of accomplishments — the list that contains details about what you specifically did to get where you are today.
As she points out, this is a great reminder that you created the successful position you are in today and can continue to achieve success in the future.
Tip #2: Try positive reframing and cognitive restructuring
Another expert we reached out to is Claire Randall, the Human Resources Director at Heat Pump Source.
Much like Amy previously pointed out, Claire also believes that it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of imposter syndrome — so that you can identify when you’re feeling them.
Claire elaborates that these symptoms of imposter syndrome can be:
- Constant self-doubt, and
- Fear of failure.
Once you’re aware of the symptoms, these are the techniques Claire recommends for dealing with imposter syndrome:
“One is called ‘positive reframing.’ This means looking at your past successes and reminding yourself that you’ve accomplished things before, so you can do it again.
Another technique is called ‘cognitive restructuring.’ This means identifying your negative thoughts and challenging them with evidence to the contrary.”
Tip #3: Try not to compare yourself to others
Amy Clark shared another valuable tip with us.
She says that comparing yourself to others is not a healthy way to grow — so you should stop doing it.
“Instead of comparing yourself to others, lead with a growth mindset. Identify where you believe you can be better.
Replace: ‘I’m not as good as…’, with ‘What do I need to learn to do this well?’ ”
Dr. Gena Cox agrees with this belief. She further explains that, when you compare yourself to someone, you give your power away.
So, to help overcome this tendency, Gena claims that we need to remind ourselves that each human is unique and has their own strengths and weaknesses.
Instead of comparing ourselves to others, she suggests the following:
“It is better to:
1. Set your own vision for what you desire — and create a plan to achieve it.
2. Keep your vision to yourself — but work towards it every day.
3. Celebrate your small wins.
4. Step out and share your progress when you have something to share and want others to see your progress.
Then, repeat this all over again for your next goal.”
Tip #4: Talk to someone about your problem
Claire Randall believes that it can also be helpful to talk to someone you trust about your imposter syndrome.
“This can help you get some outside perspective and realize that other people feel the same way sometimes.
Finally, remember that everyone makes mistakes — even successful people! It’s okay to mess up occasionally, and it doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough.”
Tip #5: Focus on how you’ll react to potential mistakes
In line with our previous tip, when mistakes happen, you should focus on how you’ll react to them.
One thing is for sure — you can’t travel to the past and prevent yourself from making mistakes.
But, what you can do is reflect on it and take effective steps to make things right:
- Analyze what went wrong,
- Find the way to fix this problem, and
- Think about how to prevent the same mistakes in the future.
Tip #6: Find a mentor
Once again, you shouldn’t have to deal with imposter syndrome all by yourself. Instead, you can find a mentor — such as your colleague or someone in your field of expertise.
This way, whenever you’re doubting yourself, you’ll be able to hear the other side — and see whether your doubts are justified.
Tip #7: Predict imposter syndrome
If you’ve noticed that particular situations or events make you more likely to experience imposter syndrome, use that information to your advantage.
Be mentally prepared for such situations, so that you can deal with the imposter experience more effectively.
For example, you may find filling out self-assessment reviews stressful because this makes you feel like an imposter. So, how to prepare yourself better?
You can keep a list of your accomplishments throughout the year. Whenever you finish a project successfully or get positive feedback from your manager, be sure to write that down on your list.
This way, you’ll have proof that you’re doing your job right — and maybe you won’t feel like a fraud anymore.
💡 Clockify Pro Tip
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Tip #8: Normalize imposter syndrome and reframe your experiences
According to Carolyn Herfurth, to overcome imposter syndrome, it’s vital to normalize it first.
“Just say: ‘Hey, a lot of people experience this, it’s ok’. Share what’s going on.”
The next step is, as Carolyn believes, reframing your experiences.
“When an imposter moment hits you probably think: ‘Oh, my god, I’m going to get fired because they’re going to find out I’m not as smart as they think’.
That is a feeling. That is not based on facts. Separate those things and reframe them, by saying: ‘Ok, how do I look at this in a different way?’”
Carolyn recommends finding out where that feeling is stemming from and looking at the facts of the situation.
“Our feelings can create a lot of stories and drama that don’t need to be there. And that’s why we need to look at the facts.
An example might be asking ourselves: ‘What happens if they find out I really don’t know what I’m doing and I get fired?
Well, what happens if you actually do know what you’re doing and you don’t get fired?”
Carolyn also emphasizes the importance of understanding what imposter syndrome is. The more people know about it, the more likely they are to identify with it. And, it all comes down to how you frame the situation you’re in.
“Let’s say you’re in a meeting and they’re asking you these questions that you’re not sure you know the answers to.
You can walk out of that meeting and say: ‘I really blew it in the meeting. I’m really in trouble.’
Or you can say: ‘Boy, did I have an imposter moment in the meeting today!’”
Carolyn concludes that we shouldn’t diminish someone’s feelings and experiences when they’re going through an imposter moment.
What can leaders do to support their employees in combating imposter syndrome?
Now that you’ve seen how you can help yourself fight the imposter phenomenon, let’s take a look at what managers can do to show support for their workers experiencing this syndrome.
Tip #1: Educate your team about imposter syndrome
Carolyn Herfurth encourages managers to be proactive and educate their teams about imposter syndrome.
“First and foremost, you can normalize the conversation by letting everyone know what imposter syndrome is and isn’t and what to do about it.”
Now, what happens when managers have no clue that their employees are experiencing imposter syndrome?
Carolyn highlights that there are many costs and consequences to imposter syndrome.
“A manager may be like: ‘Oh, that’s great, my employee is always working late. But, that comes at a cost. That person may burn out, managers might lose that great employee because they just flamed out. That ends up creating a turnover, training costs, and mistakes. Lots of things can happen to not just individuals on their level, but also to teams and organizations.”
Tip #2: Create an environment that tolerates mistakes
According to Claire Randall, managers need to try to create an environment that allows occasional mistakes.
“Try to create an environment where mistakes are okay. This will help employees feel more comfortable taking risks and trying new things.”
Tip#3: Provide regular feedback
Claire believes that another way managers can help employees experiencing imposter syndrome is to give them regular feedback — both positive and constructive.
“Feedback — this will help them see that you value their work and that you’re willing to help them improve.”
Tip #4: Show your employees that you believe in them
Amy Clark points out that team leads should let employees know that they have confidence in them.
“Showing your employees examples of when they have been successful will reinforce strengths and show employees that they are valued members of the team.
Finally, placing them in situations where they shine will generate a feeling of accomplishment and excitement about their contributions.
To overcome any feelings of doubt, managers can offer employees the space to practice or review materials with them ahead of time to build confidence.”
Tip #5: Promote transparency within the team
Dr. Gena Cox emphasizes that managers cannot, nor should they, do anything about a team member’s internal feelings.
However, here’s what Gena recommends team leaders do:
“Managers must make sure that:
— They do not create inequities by choosing favorites.
— They make pay, promotion, and other decisions fairly.
— Everyone who is a logical candidate gets a chance to be considered for opportunities.
— They allocate their resources and time fairly so that all team members get the attention they need.
— They also provide stretch assignments and coaching to help build team members’ confidence to tackle new opportunities.”
Tip #6: Encourage employees to speak openly
When experiencing imposter syndrome, some people may find it difficult to speak freely during team meetings, out of fear of coming across as incompetent for their job.
To let their employees speak up, and thus, fight the imposter phenomenon, managers should focus on improving team collaboration and communication.
Here are some ways to do so:
- Make sure nobody interrupts their coworkers while speaking.
- Give all team members equal time to share their thoughts during meetings.
- Create an environment where team members can discuss mistakes, find ways to fix them, and celebrate examples of good work.
This way, employees will not only feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts and ideas, but also more valued.
Wrapping up: Overcoming imposter syndrome can be difficult, but you don’t have to do it alone
You’re beating yourself up over tiny mistakes. You feel like a fraud who’s about to be exposed. You tend to overwork.
These are the common signs that you’re experiencing imposter syndrome — a feeling of self-doubt about your accomplishments. And there are many causes of the imposter phenomenon, such as family messaging and expectations, confidence gaps between genders, and diversity.
So, if you’ve ever had such feelings, that’s perfectly normal. I know I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome many times throughout my career. And guess what — many celebrities admit they’ve felt like frauds at some point in their lives.
The point is — whenever the imposter moment hits you, tell yourself that it’s ok because many people worldwide have the same issue as you.
More importantly, you don’t have to fight this battle alone. Talk to a person you trust and tell them how you feel. Raising awareness about imposter syndrome is vital, especially in the workplace. This way, we’re more capable of recognizing how others are feeling and whether they’re experiencing imposter syndrome.
Finally, we hope that the tips we covered in this blog post will help you deal with the imposter phenomenon more effectively.
And, here’s something you need to hear more often — don’t be so hard on yourself all the time.
✉️ Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? How did you manage to fight such nagging thoughts? Let us know at email@example.com, and we may include your answers in this or future posts. And, if you liked this post and found it useful, share it with someone you think would benefit from it.