Imposter Syndrome: Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms in Your Employees

CoachHub · 24 August 2022 · 7 min read

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that negatively impacts your self-image and attitude towards your accomplishments. Imposter syndrome causes individuals to doubt their abilities and question the value they bring to their organization or team. This phenomenon creates feelings of unworthiness, insecurity and doubt. Feeling undeserving of their position and any praise or accolades they receive is also common. 

Those who suffer from imposter syndrome have deeply rooted beliefs that they do not have the skills and abilities to be successful in their role. This causes a persistent fear that others will figure out that they are incompetent and that they will be exposed as a fraud. Symptoms of imposter syndrome can remain strong and persistent despite there being evidence of competency and success. It is very common for those with imposter syndrome to be unable to accept their successes and, therefore, they will often attribute their accomplishments to luck or other external factors. 

The term was first used in a 1970 study by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. The concept was first explored in relation to high-achieving women, but is now known to be experienced by all genders. Imposter syndrome is not classified as a mental health illness but rather a psychological condition. The root of this phenomenon lies in the individual’s belief systems and may be triggered in many areas of their life, not just in professional settings. 

Here we explore potential causes, characteristics, the symptoms and what to do if your employees are suffering from imposter syndrome, including such interventions as professional coaching.

What causes imposter syndrome?

What causes imposter syndrome varies with each individual. The following factors are known to have a significant impact:

1. Personality traits 

Certain personalities are more vulnerable to suffering from imposter syndrome. For instance, perfectionists struggle to leave any room for error and have trouble asking for help. Those who are prone to neuroticism and conscientiousness are likely to suffer from higher levels of anxiety, insecurity, tension and guilt. Such tendencies can lead to destructive mental and emotional habits linked to imposter syndrome. 

 

2. Mental health issues

Those with existing mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression usually suffer from a poor self-image and disempowering thought patterns. They are burdened by feelings of doubt and have a hard time accepting the value they can offer. Poor mental health fuels imposter syndrome as there is an existing lack of inner stability. 

 

3. Changes in role, responsibilities or environment 

Uncertainty can be a huge trigger of imposter syndrome. Comfortable and familiar situations rarely bring insecurities and doubt to the surface. Transitions in one’s work life come with increased pressure to succeed and to prove one’s worth. Exposure to new systems and processes, combined with a lack of experience, can bring up strong feelings of inadequacy and doubt.

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Different persona types

Dr. Valerie Young studied the various forms of imposter syndrome in her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Dr. Valerie defines the following five types of imposter syndrome: 

1. The perfectionist 

Perfectionists have excessively high standards for themselves and others. While this may push them to produce high-quality results, it also prevents them from being pleased with their work or asking for help. A perfectionist will feel like an imposter because they are striving for 100% perfection and are rarely satisfied. 

 

2. The superman/woman

The superman/woman is the overachiever who is driven by insecurity. They often go above and beyond because they believe they are a phony. This employee will believe they cannot be successful unless they produce ‘superhuman’ results. 

 

3. The natural genius 

The natural genius likely excelled in school and learned new skills with ease. As an adult, they expect the same and will only be satisfied if they excel quickly with little effort. The natural genius feels like a fraud if they do not get things right straight away. 

 

4. The soloist 

The soloist believes that asking for help is a sign of incompetence. They are afraid to ask questions as they fear this will reveal their lack of skill. A soloist feels like an imposter when they cannot complete a task without assistance. 

 

5. The expert

The expert believes that they must know everything in order to be considered successful. They base their competence on mastering a particular skill and will not be satisfied until they believe there is nothing left to learn. This creates feelings of insecurity when they encounter something they do not know or have not yet mastered.

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How to recognize imposter syndrome   

In order to recognize imposter syndrome in your employees, it is important to know how it may arise and what settings may trigger feelings of insecurity and doubt. 

There are three principal domains where imposter syndrome is experienced:

  • Relationship with the self: Poor assessment of competence and strengths, self-sabotage, self-doubt, poor self-talk, not feeling deserving of their title, downplaying expertise, inability to make mistakes. 
  • Attitudes towards work or performance: Berating your contribution, attributing success to external factors or luck, sensitivity to criticism, inability to promote themselves.  
  • Other people’s perceptions: Inability to accept other people’s high opinions of you, believing you have fooled others into thinking you are good at what you do, fear of being exposed, fear of not living up to expectations, feeling like you don’t belong. 

The following list suggests situations in the workplace that may trigger imposter syndrome:

  • Presentations 
  • Performance reviews 
  • Promotions 
  • Social situations
  • Onboarding new starters
  • Awards and acknowledgments.

Prevalence of imposter syndrome in the workforce

A recent study found that up to 82% of people suffer from imposter syndrome. Workplace culture plays a huge role in the prevalence of imposter syndrome. Many workplace cultures are dominated by individualism and competition, which can create insecurity within employees. Such environments value overachieving and overworking, fueling feelings of isolation and inadequacy. The more biased and toxic the work culture, the more prevalent imposter syndrome will be. 

Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey highlight the connection between bias and imposter syndrome in their article, Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome. They call for less attention to be placed on the diagnosis of imposter syndrome and more on the culture that created it: “Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests.” It is worth highlighting that the common approach to imposter syndrome often focuses entirely on fixing the individual while taking the focus away from the potentially toxic work environment that created it. 

Feelings of unworthiness and insecurity are particularly prevalent in groups that have a lack of representation in their work environment. Having no role model to compare themselves to often leads to people feeling like they do not belong or that success is not possible for them. The groups most vulnerable to imposter syndrome are: 

  • High achievers 
  • Minority groups 
  • Women. 

It is important to not that there is a fine line between discrimination and imposter syndrome. Doubting one’s own abilities and being unable to recognize personal successes is not the same as being in an environment that leads a person to believe that their identity makes them undeserving of their role. 

How to manage imposter syndrome in the workplace

Managing imposter syndrome in the workforce is less about fixing individuals and more about creating a work environment that does not encourage imposter syndrome to develop. The following list suggests ways to prevent a culture that may lead to imposter syndrome:

  • Set realistic goals. Excessive standards that are impossible to achieve will leave employees feeling incapable of doing their job.
  • Avoid comparing employees to each other. This fuels insecurity and feelings of not being good enough or not belonging.
  • Praise action over perfection. Ensure your team knows that you do not expect perfection. 
  • Encourage employees to ask for help and create a culture of collaboration.
  • Have zero tolerance for bias. Do not allow for microaggressions or discrimination of any kind and make it clear that diversity and inclusion are important in the workplace. 

It is likely, despite all efforts to cultivate an encouraging environment, that you will see signs of imposter syndrome in your employees. Below are some ways to help employees suffering from imposter syndrome:

  • Promote rational thinking exercises. The ABC Model of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can make employees aware of their irrational thoughts and soothe overwhelming emotions. 
  • Encourage employees to speak openly about their feelings. Aim to provide a broader context on the situation. 
  • Highlight their strengths. Look out for their natural inclinations and their unique contributions. Bring their attention to their genuine strengths and accomplishments.
  • Become aware of when you feel like an imposter. It can help employees to know they are not the only ones who feel like a fraud. 

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In Conclusion

Although imposter syndrome can push employees to work harder and achieve more results, it is also a toxic and harmful condition that can create real suffering. Employees can be greatly held back by fear or work themselves to the point of burnout. There are many ways of overcoming feelings of insignificance and, in time, imposter syndrome can be healed. For now, the following truths may help:

  • Success doesn’t require perfection.
  • The beliefs associated with imposter syndrome are not reality.
  • Self-doubt can be channeled into positive motivation.
  • Real imposters don’t suffer imposter syndrome.

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