Spotting and tackling imposter syndrome

"Imposter syndrome", also known as imposter phenomenon, is a feeling of inadequacy.

People with imposter syndrome feel they’re faking competency or that they’ve succeeded by pure luck. They live in fear of being unmasked as a fraud.

The condition is prevalent in high-achievers, especially women, although it does affect men, too. Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou, Denzel Washington and Albert Einstein are all reported to have suffered from imposter syndrome.

First identified over 30 years ago, imposter syndrome is not a mental illness or disorder, although it can lead to stress and depression. Strictly speaking, it’s not a syndrome either, but a collection of symptoms, hence the more correct term, imposter phenomenon. Nobody knows for sure how many people have imposter syndrome as estimates vary from 30% to 70% of the population.

However, one group of people it appears not to afflict is actual imposters.

According to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Counselling Centre imposter syndrome is:

'… a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.'

Writing in Psychology Today, [Cummins, D., 'Do You Feel Like an Imposter?', (20 October 2013), Psychology Today] Dr Denise Cummins suggests that one sign of imposter syndrome is a disconnect between perceived and actual performance.

Despite ample evidence of their great performance in the form of excellent reports, promotion history or exam grades, the so-called imposter feels they’ve been skating along thin ice and that they’re about to be found out.

It’s not clear why some people develop imposter syndrome. One theory is that people described as clever in childhood feel they have to know everything to continue to justify and earn that label. Alternatively, when such people meet a difficult challenge, such as a subject they take longer to grasp or a tougher peer group, they may feel they’re not so clever after all. In contrast, some commentators suggest that imposter syndrome can arise when children are praised for behaving well or being pretty but not valued for their intelligence. Another theory is that it affects people who seek to please, for example, by saying what others want to hear, which inadvertently increases their sense of fraudulence.

The importance of identifying and addressing imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome can lead to paralysing self-doubt and procrastination. The fear of being found out may lead people to resist change, new opportunities and even promotions. On one hand, they may be very quiet in meetings and hold back from making suggestions. On the other hand, they may go to the opposite extreme and disguise their fear with a show of bravado that alienates others. They may feel unable to use their own voice or style, or even have forgotten what it is. Similarly, a misplaced or unnecessary pursuit of perfection can turn into overzealous concentration on detail.

This may sound like a recipe for excellent performance, however the fear that underpins these symptoms can create additional work and stress. This, in time, will drain the individual and affect team performance.

It is, therefore, important to be aware that imposter syndrome:

  • Affects a person’s well-being;
  • Can have an impact on their performance at work; and
  • Can have an adverse effect on their colleagues.

If you manage anyone with imposter syndrome, bear these points in mind when considering making changes to their responsibilities or the structure of your team.

Signs of imposter syndrome

Not all self-doubt amounts to imposter syndrome. In fact, a limited amount of self-doubt has a value, as it enables us to admit to not knowing all the answers, and to see others’ perspectives. However, if you, or a member of your team, answer yes to most of these questions, you, or they, may have imposter syndrome.

  • Do you believe that other people think you’re better than you really are?
  • Do you think you got your job or promotion, or are successful, through luck, but that any failure is your fault?
  • When you succeed, do think you’ve fooled everyone?
  • Do you feel you’ll be ‘found out’?
  • Do you hesitate to put yourself forward for new projects?
  • Are you frequently dismissive of your own achievements?
  • Do you agonise over every mistake?
  • Are you unduly upset by criticism?
  • Are you unduly resistant to praise?
  • Do you feel that if something isn’t difficult, it’s not worthwhile?
  • Do you constantly compare yourself unfavourably with others?
  • Does failure crush you instead of being a chance to learn?
  • Do you rely on charm?

What to do if you spot signs of imposter syndrome

If you recognise any signs of imposter syndrome in yourself or others, first consider whether there is a logical or objective basis for them. Would an objective third party see things the same way? The key to shaking off imposter syndrome is to identify and overcome self-sabotaging habits.

If you conclude that you or a member of your team does have imposter syndrome, explore mentoring or coaching opportunities. Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and cognitive behavioural therapy exercises can also help, as can simply talking the issues through.

For more help, see our practical self-help imposter syndrome checklist.

Conclusion

Imposter syndrome is a feeling of inadequacy, a sense that all your successes in life are down to fluke, despite concrete evidence to the contrary. It affects high achievers and is most prevalent in women. Spotting imposter syndrome in either yourself or a colleague is the vital first step in getting meaningful help and minimising its impact on both personal wellbeing and team performance.

We have a video explaining imposter syndrome at the bottom of this article.

There are many on-line articles about imposter syndrome. A small selection of resources are listed below.

On-line self- test

Website

Books and Articles

  • Young, V. (15 November 2011), The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, (Crown Business Publishing). Despite its title, this is not just for women.
  • The original article proposing Imposter Syndrome: Clance, P.R.; Imes, S.A, (1978),The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention, (Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice). 
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Imposter Syndrome

In this video, Natalie Jobling explains the symptoms of "imposter syndrome", how it affects people and the impact it can have on colleagues.