IMPOSTER SYNDROME - WHAT IS IT?
Have you ever suffered from debilitating self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy or fear of failure at work? Have you ever felt like you are a fraud and at any moment you will be ‘found out’ and exposed for being incompetent and under qualified for your position? Then you may have experienced a phenomenon known as ‘imposter syndrome’.
Imposter syndrome has been defined as ‘the crippling feeling of self-doubt, intellectual inadequacy and anticipated failure that haunts people who attribute their success to luck or help from others rather than their own abilities’. The term originated in 1978, when psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first noticed the phenomenon whilst interviewing successful female professionals and university students. Despite their significant achievements, many interviewees lacked self confidence and reported feeling incompetent and like an imposter.
Imposter syndrome can manifest in different ways, but typically involves the following:
A difficulty accepting praise and recognition for personal accomplishments
A reluctance to seize opportunities and take initiative
A reluctance to accept promotions or new assignments because of not feeling ‘ready’
A reluctance to highlight personal contributions to projects
Trouble delegating, due to a need to ensure everything is done to impossibly high standards
Individualism and a difficulty accepting help
Procrastination caused by an immobilising fear of failure
Workaholism stemming from a feeling of incompetence and a perceived need to work harder in order to keep up with contemporaries
Clare Josa, leadership consultant and author of ‘Ditching Imposter Syndrome’ believes imposter syndrome is ‘the single biggest block to success’ in business today, because it means employees ‘play small, don’t take risks and don’t put forward their ideas’. Imposter syndrome limits creativity, innovation and productivity because employees lack confidence in their ideas and have a debilitating fear of failure. It has also been shown to isolate individuals, impacting interpersonal relationships and team work in the workplace. Furthermore, imposter syndrome negatively affects employee mental health and wellbeing.
WHO DOES IT AFFECT?
No-one is immune from imposter syndrome and people experience it across all levels and industries. For example, successful professionals including Sheryl Sandberg, Emma Watson, Michelle Obama and Nicola Sturgeon have all been outspoken about their experiences of imposter syndrome. Indeed, research suggests that 70% of people will experience it at some point throughout their career.
However, some people may be more vulnerable than others. A number of studies suggest that women and other underrepresented groups in many workplaces are more likely to experience imposter syndrome at work. For example, a recent study commissioned by the career development agency Amazing If found that 40% of millennial women experience imposter syndrome, compared to 22% of men in the same age group. A similar study by Access Commercial Finance found that women were 10% more likely to experience imposter syndrome than their male counterparts.
A lack of representation in senior positions can make women, BAME and LGBTQ employees feel like they don’t belong or are not accepted in particular workplaces or industries, which exacerbates feelings of imposter syndrome. Reflecting on her experience of imposter syndrome, communications and leadership consultant Bridget Aherne stated ‘if there were more people like me working in business leadership, I might not inaccurately look at myself and the shortcomings I perceive that I have’.
This week, NatWest launched its #OwnYourImposter campaign, to spark a conversation about imposter syndrome and encourage more people to share their experiences. Their recent research showed that 60% of women who have considered starting a business decided not to because they lacked confidence. Furthermore, 44% of women said imposter syndrome has prevented them from applying for business funding. This has prompted NatWest to launch its new crowdfunding platform, Back Her Business, which will provide an alternative channel for female entrepreneurs to access funding, with the support of a mentoring network.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
Lauren Romansky, Vice President of HR at Gartner suggests that individuals should ‘work at an organisation where you can see people like you’ in order to avoid imposter syndrome, as this ‘can give individuals a lot more confidence’ and ‘lets individuals see people similar to themselves making strides and succeeding’. However, this isn’t always possible for underrepresented groups. Furthermore, instead of encouraging diversity and inclusion, this seems to discourage individuals from minority groups from entering particular workplaces or industries where ‘people like them’ are sorely underrepresented. It also abnegates companies of their responsibility to ensure that they have a diverse workforce and make all employees feel welcome and accepted.
Matt Haycox, a consultant at Access Commercial Finance believes that employers can and should do more to help sufferers of imposter syndrome. Companies have a responsibility to ensure they create supportive work environments, that encourage interpersonal relationships and team growth and install confidence in employees. Companies can encourage executives and senior managers to share their own experiences of self-doubt and failure in order to facilitate an open workplace culture, where uncertainty and failure are not feared but seen as necessary stepping stones to success. Furthermore, educating employees about imposter syndrome and its affects has been shown to have positive effects, as simply learning about the phenomenon and knowing that others experience it gives relief to sufferers. Finally, mentorship is proven to be a particularly powerful tool in overcoming imposter syndrome. The importance of mentorship for career progression is well documented and mentors can objectively assess mentees’ strengths and weaknesses, give encouragement and advice in times of self-doubt and push mentees out of their comfort zone and into new experiences. According to the American Society for Training and Development, a remarkable 75% of executives say mentoring has been critical to their career development.
WERKIN understands the importance of interpersonal networks and mentorship in building supportive and inclusive workplaces. WERKIN’s Modern Mentorship is a tech-enabled platform that helps companies build their mentorship and sponsorship programmes so that they can encourage and support diverse talent. WERKIN’s technology uses algorithms that match employees with projects and roles based on their interests, experience and skillset. This demonstrates how technology can be used to objectively identify skills and talent, which is particularly useful in situations where employees lack confidence and are likely to undersell themselves and their achievements.
Imposter syndrome negatively affects employee mental health and wellbeing, impacts interpersonal workplace relationships, limits career progression and reduces creativity, innovation and productivity. Using technology such as that provided by WERKIN enables companies to develop into supportive and inclusive workplaces, where employees are encouraged to feel confident in their abilities and reach their full potential.