Unmasking the Imposter

Have you ever felt like a fraud in work? Do you fear being ‘found out’? If so, you may be experiencing ‘Imposter Syndrome’.

 ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is something which about 70% of us experience at some point during our working lives. It is a very common phenomenon but the ways in which people deal with these feelings differ.

Symptoms of ‘Imposter Syndrome’

Frequently experiencing self-doubt and insecurity can be very damaging both to our careers and our mental health and wellbeing. People can become reluctant to accept or take credit for their own achievements. Instead, they may modestly put it down to luck or the influence and support of other people.

Perfectionism is another common trait for people who have Imposter Syndrome; setting high goals for themselves and giving themselves a hard time if they do not reach that standard. Even when work is done successfully, there is no sense of satisfaction derived from the work as they are too focussed on how they could have done it better.

Others may feel a constant need to prove themselves or become unwilling to ask for help. Similar to the ‘Spotlight Effect’ (which we explored in a previous Insight article), those with Imposter Syndrome may feel that asking for help from a colleague will make that colleague question their abilities and feel judged for it. Showing independence in the workplace can be a good thing, however there are times when we do need to ask for help and having the Imposter Syndrome can make this an excruciating task.

Causes

There are several theories why people suffer from Imposter Syndrome. It may be a trait developed from childhood or caused by unsupportive social networks in school, work or in our social lives. For example, ambivalent friendships (so-called ‘frenemy’ relationships) where ‘friends’ undermine each other, can lead to a loss of confidence and self-belief.

Humans have also evolved to retain bad memories to serve as a reminder of threats. Think of the old adage ‘once bitten, twice shy’. Therefore, being cautious, is a defence against danger so these emotions, if kept under control, can be important. If someone never feels self-doubt or questions their abilities, they may simply be unconsciously incompetent and that is not a good thing.

A survey of managers carried out by the Institute of Leadership and Management found that about half of female managers experience self-doubt in their roles, compared with only a third of male managers. It is important not to generalise - both men and women may experience the so-called ‘Imposter Syndrome’ – but research suggests that female employees are more likely to be held back by it. As such, talented women may not achieve their potential in the workplace. They may be overlooked for leadership positions or not have the confidence to seek advancement.

Men who face the Imposter Syndrome may deal with it by focusing attention on their strengths instead. Women, on the other hand, may be more inclined to dwell on these emotions and suffer from anxiety.

How to Deal with it

Self-doubt and a fear of failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and can be damaging to your career. Therefore, it is crucial to find ways to overcome the ‘Imposter Syndrome’.

The first step is to have effective relationships with colleagues, built on trust and mutual respect. A strong support network in work is a very important factor in becoming more self-assured. Having friends in work also means that you will not be isolated. Feeling alone in the workplace can provide space and time for negative and self-defeating thoughts to fester.

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of what we’ve achieved. Being too self-critical creates opportunity for self-doubt and uncertainty to breed. Instead, you should focus on your strengths when faced with these crippling emotions. Keep a record of your achievements, no matter how small they seem. On reflection, it will be easier to see that those successes are not simply down to luck.

Dealing with Employees with ‘Imposter Syndrome’

If you are a manager, you may note that, in appraisals, some employees may not take ownership of their achievements or successes. They may underplay it or try to deflect praise. Therefore, encouraging employees to reflect on successes should be an important part of the appraisal process.

Managers should also reflect on the organisational culture. Is there too much emphasis on ‘getting things right’ in an organisation? Is ‘failure’ denounced or is creativity and innovation embraced, even with the uncertainty of success?

We will all make mistakes from time to time. What matters is that we learn from them, move on with a positive outlook and stop giving ourselves a hard time when we make small mistakes.

About the author

Jessica joined RWA in 2018, having graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Film Studies. Prior to this, she worked in a photography studio as a wedding album editor and also attended work experience at a local library.

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