Imposter syndrome has sadly been a popular term going around recently. After having to navigate working through a pandemic and now adapting to the new normal of hybrid and remote work, many employers and employees have found themselves feeling somewhat out of their depth. A YouGov survey of 2,500 UK workers found imposter syndrome to be one of the most common mental health issues in the contemporary workplace, with nearly three in five (58%) of employees experiencing it. Similarly, a study in the US found that 65% of professionals suffered from imposter syndrome. The prevalence of this feeling in today’s world means that this is no longer something that we should label as a problem predominantly facing women.
But where do these feelings stem from? And how can employers aid those who find themselves questioning whether they deserve to be in their position?
Feeling like an imposter can be brought on by a number of things, but these can be filed under two main factors – internal and external.
Internal imposter syndrome is in reference to those who suffer from anxiety and self-doubt, sometimes on a debilitating level, that is triggered by the individual’s internalized stories. They will lack the confidence to speak up because they are constantly second-guessing themselves and their capability, and this mindset can fester and grow as time goes on. Often times, it will be newer hires who have fallen short or made a mistake upon starting, and in their attempt to be mentally tough and analyse what they did wrong, they can end up planting a seed of doubt that blooms over time.
External imposter syndrome examines the environment someone is entering. Many employers will look at hiring more diverse candidates to bring in new and fresh perspectives, but these candidates can find themselves feeling like imposters if they are entering into a culture that has been set in its ways for a while and they repeatedly find themselves being ‘shut down’. In this sense, this is a sign that the culture needs to begin evolving to incorporate new ways of thinking so that everyone can benefit from it.
Regardless of what has provoked these feelings, a growth mindset approach to both can help tremendously with combatting this ideology of self-doubt. If its internal, leaders can coach their employees who are suffering, or refer them to an external coach, who can help to recalibrate the way they perceive themselves and their capabilities – spinning the idea on its head to go from, ‘why don’t I know this’ to ‘I don’t know this yet, what can I do to accelerate my learning and development in this area? ’. The label ‘imposter’ can be a harmful one and carries heavy connotations that are not usually applicable – you are not an imposter if you don’t know how to do everything, and that’s completely fine. It can be as simple as reminding staff that they were hired for a reason, so they have already earned their place at the table. Another great way of getting this across is by regular acknowledgment of contribution and feedback – reassurance from those that work above you can go a very long way.
This same logic can be applied to external imposter syndrome. If you have hired someone to bring in a fresh perspective on a new market, for example, then naturally their ideas are going to vary. To avoid making them feel alienated from the get-go, you can explore ways to allow for new ideas to be brought forward. A few ideas include:
- Asking all members of the team to brainstorm new options, perhaps anonymously to remove any element of bias.
- Use de Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats.
- Or be inspired by Julia Dahr’s TED Talk that encourages us to learn from debate tactics!
This also allows time for the culture to organically adapt to changes.
It's important for any employer to recognise that anyone who finds themselves in a new position – regardless of their hierarchical position – may begin to feel like an imposter of sorts. If you ensure that you have an inclusive culture that encourages communication, then employees will feel comfortable in seeking some support for the way they are feeling. Having coached many executives who have experienced these feelings of doubt, I know first-hand how important it is to address this before it becomes embedded.
Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020