How to Combat Impostor Syndrome

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Thursday, April 18, 2019

It's natural to have insecurities from time to time. However, this can have a detrimental impact on many employees and impostor syndrome might be more common than many people realize.

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Insecurity can be a powerful emotion that drains a person's resolve and makes them feel like a fraud. For businesses, this can be a major problem, as individuals who feel like they aren't the 'real deal' may be less productive, less confident and more prone to self-doubt.

Research carried out by the International Journal of Behavioral Science revealed that 70% of people will suffer from this condition at some point in their career. Indeed, it is a far more common issue than many might realize.

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome was first recorded by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978. It is defined as:

"The persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills."

It can affect anyone, at any time and in any industry, and is therefore a serious issue that businesses can’t ignore. The impact of impostor syndrome can be far-reaching and detrimental to both individuals and to teams, so understanding and addressing its causes is essential.

Subject matter expert Dr Valerie Young has categorized five distinct forms of the condition, with each demonstrating a range of specific characteristics:

1. The Perfectionist

Someone who feels they must be 100 percent accurate, all of the time and believe that anything less than perfect performance is unacceptable.

2. The Superman/woman

They always stay late, they work every hour of the day (even when it's not required) and find downtime wasteful.

3. The Natural Genius 

A person who judges their own competence based on the amount of effort required. If something doesn't come naturally to them, they can feel like a failure.

4. The Soloist

A person who is fiercely independent and refuses assistance when offered, even if it's obvious that the support is needed/would be beneficial to the business.

5. The Expert

Individuals who endlessly seek to expand their knowledge for fear that their colleagues may think them a fraud if they do not have the right skills/know the right answers.

How to spot the symptoms of impostor syndrome

It can be easy for managers to miss the tell-tale signs of impostor syndrome. For many, it’s a dark secret that they wouldn't want to let slip, so for businesses keen to address these false beliefs, doing so can be a challenge.

That said, managers who feel staff members may be suffering from the condition can look out for some of the more common warning signs:

  • Individuals who have difficulty accepting praise
  • Team members who take on excessive workloads
  • A consensus that a person is a 'perfectionist'
  • Individuals who disproportionately focus on negatives rather than positives in feedback
  • People who regularly compare themselves unfavorably to others

A key part of spotting these signs is to be actively engaged with staff, so managers should regularly be talking to their teams not just about the work they are undertaking, but their attitudes in general.

What can companies do to help?

Understanding and appreciating the impact of impostor syndrome in a personal sense for employees is the first step in providing proper support. It is essential that organizations take this issue seriously and provide help and support where possible.

Ensuring the wellbeing of staff means making people realize that their best efforts will always be appreciated and that their work does not have to be flawless all of the time.

Encouraging the development of an open and honest dialogue within teams also helps to ensure everyone is aware of what is expected of them and that any issues can be raised with management without fear of reprisal.

By developing people's confidence and by helping to break down large, daunting projects into more manageable, bitesize pieces, the issue of individuals feeling like they are out of their depth can be greatly reduced.

Supporting individuals to become confident, skilled workers should be the goal of every organization. When staff members feel they have the right skills and attitude to succeed, the fear of being an impostor in one's role can be significantly reduced.

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