Imposter Syndrome - How to Help Your Employees Overcome It


One would think high achievers have equally high self-confidence. Surprisingly, a number of people who excel at work (or other areas of their life) actually struggle with low confidence levels and they doubt their skills and abilities every day. Rather than attribute their accomplishments to internal success factors, they think they just got lucky and that sooner or later they will be discovered as frauds. This phenomenon is called Imposter Syndrome and it can have a negative impact on productivity and overall wellness in the workplace. Find out what it is and what you can do to prevent it.


What Is It and Who Suffers From It?

Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you don’t deserve the success you have. It was first coined in the 1970s in relation to a pattern of inadequacy described by female graduate students and is now recognised as something that high-achievers in general often struggle with. In fact studies find that 70% of people will suffer imposter syndrome at some point in their careers.

  • Sufferers believe that they aren’t nearly as smart or capable as people around them think.
  • They attribute their successes to external factors like luck or being in the right place at the right time.
  • They have self-doubt and they fear they will be found out as a fraud.
  • They compare themselves to others constantly.
  • They may also suffer from depression or anxiety because of these negative internal messages.

People with imposter syndrome often have been very successful in life. They may have been labeled the ‘smart one’ in their family and had pressure to succeed early on.  They are often perfectionists who focus on the tiny things they may have done wrong rather than everything they do right. They are also often seen as the expert; the one you go to when you need answers. Behind the scenes though, these people are desperately propping up their self-made façade, working endlessly or trying to stay one step ahead of everyone at all times. They are the people you are least likely to worry about at work, yet they may need the most support. 


How Do You Spot It?

For people suffering with Imposter Syndrome, self-doubt is pervasive. It’s more than the normal feelings of inadequacy we all experience from time to time – it’s a fundamental belief that they are not good enough and haven’t really earned any of their success. Pay attention to the following types of behavior:

  • Turning down promotions
  • Avoiding new or challenging assignments
  • Failing to get started on projects
  • Working to burn-out
  • Expressing self-loathing with comments like, “I am so dumb” or “Why do I even keep trying?”
  • Making self deprecating remarks like, “I probably don’t know what I’m talking about but…”
  • Deflecting praise and avoiding feedback
  • Second guessing decisions
  • Setting over ambitious and/or unrealistic goals

These behaviours all point to people who are unable to see their value and who don’t feel they are good enough. They are constantly striving to be more or to be better and they fail to recognize that where they are right now is great. These people aren’t likely to ask for help; in fact they will often be fiercely independent and want to go it alone. They may even take any offer of help as a personal affront and more evidence that they are indeed frauds.


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How Do You Combat It?

Imposter Syndrome is complex and thankfully people tend to suffer periodically, like when they start a new job or take on a new assignment so be attuned to people in these particular circumstances. It can however be a lifelong experience so it’s important that you look systemically at the conditions within the workplace that may be contributing to the problem as well.

It starts with culture and the messages you send employees about success, failure, inclusion, and recognition. Ensuring these factors are aligned with healthy personal behavior will help create a culture that discourages Imposter Syndrome to take a grip.

  • Talk openly about Imposter Syndrome – acknowledge the phenomenon and have honest conversations with your people. Encourage people to share their struggles with feeling inadequate and their professional fears. These conversations are powerful and they will reduce the stigma and shame for people who are currently feeling like imposters.
  • Acknowledge mistakes - ensure your approach to innovation includes embracing failure as an opportunity to learn. Encourage leaders to talk about their own mistakes and acknowledge that they don’t always have the answers. This ability to be vulnerable will help employees see that no one is perfect nor is perfection ever a standard.
  • Focus on inclusion – let everyone know they have a place in the organisation and that their ‘best self’ is always good enough. When people feel safe that they can be themselves and express their opinions, their feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy will diminish as well.
  • Be aware of competitiveness – examine your recognition structure to ensure there is a good balance with individual and team reward. Also pay attention to the notion of ‘work hard/play hard’ as this breeds competitiveness between people and contributes to burnout.
  • Set clear and realistic goals – communicate regularly and provide supports necessary to achieve goals. Break down assignments into stages and encourage people to learn new skills slowly as they build their competence and their confidence.
  • Celebrate incremental success – provide continual feedback as a way to encourage and recognise accomplishments. Think too about praising effort versus the outcome so if/when a setback happens the person still knows you appreciate their hard work.
  • Challenge negative self-talk – when you hear people doubting themselves, be proactive and counteract their statement with a positive affirmation. Turn their attention to their accomplishments and put any setbacks into perspective.

Imposter Syndrome isn’t something that will completely disappear, however with a focused effort you can keep its most damaging effects at bay with your workplace. Acknowledge it exists, examine your culture for potential triggers and keep the conversation going as you provide support to potential sufferers and help them to understand their true worth and to attribute their successes appropriately.


More resources on how to best support your employees:


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