Blog Employee Experience

Feel like an imposter at work? You’re not alone!

Everyone questions themselves from time to time. It’s only natural. You might wonder if you’re even fit for the job. Maybe management will realise they’ve accidentally hired an incompetent moron. If so, then you just might be dealing with imposter syndrome at work. The good news is, it’s more common than you think.

The DSM doesn't list imposter syndrome as a formal diagnosis. It is, however, still an extremely well-documented phenomenon. Imposter syndrome is essentially a deeply ingrained belief that you don’t have what it takes to succeed at the role you find yourself in.

But more than that, it’s the idea that your achievements so far aren't really your own. Imposter syndrome is when, rather than acknowledging your own abilities, you attribute success to luck or external factors. Symptoms of imposter syndrome include:

  • Constant self-doubt
  • An inability to assess your own abilities fairly
  • Attributing success to external factors
  • Being overly self-critical
  • Fearing not being able to live up to expectations
  • Self-sabotage
  • Setting unrealistic goals that reinforce IS when you fail

So, a newly-promoted editor-in-chief could exemplify imposter syndrome. Maybe they doubt their own skill as a writer, or their ability to lead effectively. An employee might worry they were only promoted because they get on with the higher-ups. Left unchecked, this mindset can erode self-worth, damage mental health, and drive valuable talent out the door.

But to tackle imposter syndrome effectively, we first need to be able to look at the root causes. So, why do employees suffer from imposter syndrome?

So why does imposter syndrome happen?

Obviously, imposter syndrome at work can manifest in response to a sudden increase in responsibility. People can spend years working as part of a team before making it to management. Suddenly going from taking assignments to handing them out can require some getting used to. That’s especially true given how common it is for businesses not to provide training for first-time managers.

But it’s also more complicated than that. Imposter syndrome doesn’t just magically sprout when someone gets promoted. It’s usually tied to anxieties and problems with self-worth that were there all along. This makes imposter syndrome at work a mental wellbeing issue through and through.

If you were held to ridiculously high standards growing up, you're more likely to develop imposter syndrome in adulthood. And then there's the fact that some people are just naturally more likely to have an anxious disposition.

How prevalent is workplace imposter syndrome?

It’s actually very common for people to experience imposter syndrome at work at some point in their lives. So, if you’ve been struggling with it, don’t hold that against yourself!

In 2018, OnePoll performed a study of 3,000 UK adults. They found that 62% had experienced imposter syndrome at some point within the previous twelve months. And when filtering for respondents aged 18-34, that statistic rose to 86%.

In 2020, a literature review in 2020 of 62 studies (half of which were from the previous six years) found that recorded rates of imposter syndrome were heavily influenced by the kinds of screening tools and cut-off criteria used in each study.

As a result, reported rates of imposter syndrome ranged between 9 and 82%, partially supporting OnePoll's earlier findings. But that's not all. The lit review also concluded that imposter syndrome was found to affect both men and women across a range of ages. It also revealed that rates were especially high among respondents who were part of an ethnic minority.

But that isn't even the most important finding. The study also revealed that imposter syndrome correlates with the following co-morbidities:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Impaired job performance
  • Lack of job satisfaction
  • Employee burnout

How to overcome imposter syndrome

The question still remains of how to overcome imposter syndrome at work. Unfortunately, as noted already, there’s currently a lack of published studies into effective treatments for imposter syndrome.

As a result, our tips largely revolve around creating a flexible workplace culture that’s supportive of employee wellbeing:

Provide skills development and mentorship

One thing you can do as a supportive manager or HR professional to tackle imposter syndrome at work is to help employees address their concerns. You can do this by providing your people with training and other learning opportunities. Skills development ensures they have the knowledge to succeed.

But that's not your only option. While training addresses anxieties based on genuine shortcomings, imposter syndrome often has no basis in reality. So, if you think these concerns are purely psychological, consider assigning them to a mentorship.

An employee mentor can engage with their anxieties on a more personal level, better than any training course ever could.

Offer flexibility so that employees can seek therapy

There are various therapy options people can pursue to overcome things like imposter syndrome. That includes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, group therapy or individual psychotherapy. But the regular time investment can be difficult to commit to, especially for full-time employees.

Make sure your people know they have the flexibility to adjust their schedules or work from home to make it more manageable. Your employees will be grateful for the empathetic treatment. You'll also be much less likely to lose people to turnover.

De-stigmatize the discussion around mental health

Part of imposter syndrome is the terror of being "caught."

The idea that, one day, your boss or colleagues will realise you’re as useless as you think you are, which obviously makes opening up difficult.

If you’ve struggled with something similar, being open about it can encourage other people to share. If we're going to collectively undo toxic workplace cultures, people need to be able to admit when they're struggling without fear of judgement.

Check in regularly to see what support they need

Ongoing communication is vital for making sure that your employees don’t suffer in silence. Taking your regular feedback process seriously shows that you won’t just ignore what they have to say.

If you think someone in your team might be struggling with imposter syndrome, you should tool their check-in questions accordingly. Make it clear there are a range of options for support. Include everything we've listed so far, as well as anything else you can think of.

You always have the option of deferring their promotion if you think these anxieties stem from new responsibilities. That can give them time to either train for their new role, or take a holiday or sabbatical to clear their head.

In an ideal world, nobody would be anxious and everyone would have a great sense of self-worth. But as the last couple of years have shown, the world is far from an ideal place. Ultimately, all we can do is realise that a lot of us are in the same boat, and try to empathise accordingly.

A weekly employee check-in can help employees gain valuable timely feedback from their manager to help reduce the impact of imposter syndrome. Worth a look?