Imposter Syndrome has become synonymous with workplace dysfunction and missed opportunities. 

But the power of managers and business leaders to impact change where it’s most effective – in the establishment of cultures of support and data-led performance handling – cannot be overstated. 

So how exactly can managers help reduce Imposter Syndrome in work, and improve the mental and behavioural health of their people and workplace at the same time?

What is imposter syndrome?

  • Imposter syndrome (IS) is a behavioural health phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals. 

These individuals cannot internalise their success and subsequently experience pervasive feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and/or apprehension of being exposed as a fraud in their work, despite verifiable and objective evidence of their successfulness”.

In short, Imposter Syndrome is self-doubt made manifest. That manifestation can take on many iterations, from surface-level drops in confidence to more serious bouts of depression and illness. 

Crucially, Imposter Syndrome is a form of self-esteem blindness – even when confronted with proof of good work done, targets hit and promotions earned, the feeling of being a fraud persists. 

If not approached with candour and empathy, these feelings can seriously negatively affect career progression, team cohesion and productivity, not to mention team and personal morale, and individual mental health.

What are the tell-tell signs of Imposter Syndrome?

According to BetterUp, there are 7 primary signs someone is suffering from Imposter Syndrome. 

  • “Self-doubt.
  • Undervaluing personal contribution.
  • Attributing success to external factors, rather than their own hard work.
  • Sabotaging self-success by only seeing failure, thereby reducing effort and creative application.
  • Setting unrealistic expectations, thereby never living up to your potential by setting goals that can never be hit.
  • Continuous fear of not living up to expectations, and believing challenges can never be overcome.
  • Burnout, and the complete, confused, expenditure of energy and passion in search of something that can never be found”.

An interesting further read is Very Well Mind’s Five Types of Impostor Syndrome, which summarises researcher Dr Valerie Young’s teachings on Imposter Syndrome, and her development of 5 personas that illustrates how imposter syndrome manifests. 

An example of one is:

  • The Expert – The expert feels like an imposter because they don’t know everything there is to know about a particular subject or topic, or they haven’t mastered every step in a process. Because there is more for them to learn, they don’t feel as if they’ve reached the rank of “expert.”. 

When you combine the 7 points listed above with the personal below, you can see signs of continuous fear of not living up to expectations, setting unrealistic expectations and sabotaging self-success mindsets.

Who suffers from Imposter Syndrome?

Anyone can suffer from Imposter Syndrome – despite some manifest commonalities, each person suffering from it has their own unique mixture of self-doubt and job-related negativity, and moments of self-assessment and clarity despite it. 

Referring again to the BetterUp article mentioned above, there are some universally understood causes behind “cognitive distortions” like Imposter Syndrome, such as:

  • Critical family environments.
  • Critical social circles and peer groups.
  • A dysfunctional sense of group belonging or social exclusion.
  • Introverted personalities.
  • Clinical issues, such as suffering from depression or anxiety.

Leadership and Imposter Syndrome.

It comes as no surprise that for all the mental health support and wellbeing strategies you put into a workplace, the actions of leadership figures (and mentors especially) will have an outsized impact on the morale and self-esteem of workers.

HBR offer a fantastic overview of Imposter Syndrome in a two-part article series. Their second piece – End Imposter Syndrome in Your Workplace – provides hands-on guidance for leaders looking to build more supportive workplaces and communicative cultures based on positivity, results, impact and personal celebration. 

Their main points of attack are:

Pivot the language employees use to describe themselves.

  • “Honest conversations about what it takes to “win” in your company culture can help your team members adjust inaccurate self-assessments. Share your own experiences of imposter syndrome and highlight the conditions that triggered that response, such as chronic underrepresentation, uncredited work efforts, and microaggressions”.

Leaders should always be aware of how their words and actions are construed, and the implications of their leadership style will be driven in large part by the standards they set for communication, feedback, active listening, and company behaviour. 

Be honest about the impact of bias.

  • “Discrimination and bias shape our expectations of how leaders should look, sound, and act, making an invisible impact on seemingly neutral terms like “professionalism”.

Bias affects everyone, but through the lens of Imposter Syndrome, it can have a huge effect on the self-esteem of female workers and female workers of colour. Leaders have a unique ability – and responsibility – to assess and admit where bias makes the most impact.

Reduce biases against women of colour at work.

  • “Women of colour make up 89% of the net new women-owned businesses per day, despite only comprising 39% of the total female U.S. population. Despite wide disparities in women of colour’s access to capital for these businesses, many find they would rather take the risk to escape from toxic and biased workplace cultures”.

Again, Leaders are uniquely placed to source and find solutions to biases against women of colour at work by “reinforcing their own belief in their abilities and chances of success, using phrases like, “I know you can lead this big project; I’ve seen you succeed before and I believe in you”. Make support tactile and visible!

Be data-driven and rigorous.

  • “Measure employee sentiment through anonymous feedback surveys…(and) assess your organisation’s performance criteria and average time to promotion”.

If you’re finding “the last 10 promotions were largely of white men, and their average time-to-promotion is much shorter than that of women and people of colour”, then a uniquely racial flavour of Imposter Syndrome will become manifest. 

Extend that framework over any level of bias, from age to religion to gender, and you’ll find Imposter Syndrome explodes.

Quit gaslighting and listen.

  • “Managers must be transparent about the organisation’s locked doors…Honesty reciprocates. Listen to your employees without doubt. It’s the work of managers to leverage their influence to open doors for their employees and keep them open for others like them”.

In short, take responsibility for supporting and listening to your team, and don’t pull the wool over their eyes in regard to how you can help them develop their career or skills. 

Sponsor and mentoring.

  • “We’ve completely failed to take into account the role of all that constant reinforcement and encouragement in making men ‘confident’ and self-promoting.” Men, especially white men, learn that confidence from the reinforcement they receive in the workplace”.

It’s clear as day that many modern workplaces support and elevate men more than anyone else. So the obverse is true, too – “In environments where we receive the sponsorship we need to succeed, there’s more likelihood that we will, without expending energy determining whether and how to belong”. 

Set up accountability mechanisms for change.

  • “Organisational change becomes sustainable and effective when managers at all levels are held accountable to those changes”.

The ability of leaders to beat Imposter Syndrome is the sum of their adherence to structures and cultures put in place to support and mentor workers, to reduce the impacts of bias and gaslighting, and to light a way for career growth. 

In short, they have to live and breathe the behaviours, discipline, and positive self-assessment they want to see in their senior leadership teams and in their employees. 

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