“Who do you think you are?” Keeping Imposter Syndrome at bay in the workplace

“Who do you think you are?” Keeping Imposter Syndrome at bay in the workplace

“I had to overcome the question ‘Am I good enough?’ It’s dogged me for most of my life.”

If the words of Michelle Obama resonate with you, then you could well be familiar with Imposter Syndrome – a pervasive feeling of insecurity and self-doubt. Identified over 50 years ago, Imposter Syndrome is the belief that your successes or achievements are due to luck rather than innate ability or learned knowledge and skills. It’s estimated to affect around 70% of us at some point in our lifetime and is often driven by the fear of being unsuccessful, or the belief that you are underqualified or inadequate. Not surprisingly, it’s particularly prevalent in the workplace.

More than a personal feeling

While it’s natural – and probably healthy – to doubt ourselves every now and then, Imposter Syndrome is more deep-rooted and can lead to negative impacts both for you and the organisation you work for. If you are scared of failing, you’re less likely to be innovative which, ironically, could increase your chances of failure. You may avoid taking difficult decisions because you don’t want to be unpopular or draw attention to yourself. “You may not seek better opportunities due to fear of being exposed as a fraud,” says psychologist Richard Orbé-Austin. “Or it could cause your management style to be less effective due to micro-management, perfectionism and lack of confidence.”

Someone experiencing Imposter Syndrome is likely to avoid the limelight, reject praise and downplay their achievements, which can hamper their career growth. In turn this means they could miss out on roles where they could add value, or overwork in an unnecessary attempt to prove their worth.

So what might seem like a personal issue, can actually have ramifications across a business as a whole. It can even be caused and fed by business practice and culture. (More of that later.)

It’s a woman thing, right?

Well, yes and no. Though many people associate Imposter Syndrome with high-achieving women, it actually affects women and men in similar numbers. Having said that, workplace minority groups – women in management and women of colour in particular – are at higher risk of its most far-reaching, negative consequences. If you can’t ‘see’ yourself in roles above you then it’s natural to feel as if you shouldn’t be there.

Since taking up her role as Global Chair of Deloitte in 2019 (the first woman to take on such a role across the Big Four), Sharon Thorne has been open about her challenges with Imposter Syndrome. Here’s how she describes her first visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos:

“I’d just been nominated as Deloitte’s next Global Chair. I was excited, honoured and upbeat. However, I arrived in Davos and immediately felt out of place. What was I doing here? I had to return to my hotel room and immerse myself in work to get myself back together.”

If there had been female role models ahead of her, Sharon might have felt less out of place with the financiers in suits. With women and minority groups already behind the curve in terms of representation and recognition at senior management level, Imposter Syndrome simply strengthens the glass ceiling.

What can your business do to keep IS at bay?

An article in the Harvard Business Review, Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome, suggests: “The answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals but to create an environment that fosters a variety of leadership styles and in which diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities are seen as just as professional as the current model…” – the current model being white, male and heterosexual.

In other words, Imposter Syndrome can be brought on and exacerbated by work culture and practices, but reduced by them too. And not just in terms of women and women of colour, but in a way that will benefit all your employees. Here are some key pointers.

Focus on inclusion: put diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at the top of your agenda. It’s the starting point for creating a supportive, safe work environment that encourages people to take creative risks and be themselves. Give everyone a voice, listen to your employees and actively root out bias – from your recruitment campaigns to your board representation.

Create healthy expectations: we all get things wrong occasionally – it’s one of the ways we learn. Let your employees know that you’re not perfect and that you don’t expect them to be. Set achievable goals for everyone and give them the necessary support to reach them.

Promote mentorship and sponsorship: ideally every employee would benefit from having a mentor, someone to share knowledge and give guidance, and subsequently a sponsor who can increase their visibility in the organisation and give them opportunities for career development. This is doubly beneficial for any employee at risk of Imposter Syndrome.

Training and development: prioritising professional qualifications and personal development through courses, webinars, networking and events can help give employees the skills – and confidence – they need to succeed.

It’s time to fire up your employee comms

Your employee comms are a powerful part of the answer. They give you the means to create a meaningful dialogue with your employees, helping you to measure and understand biases and then address the issues identified. Here are four key ways they can help:

Educate: if you’re fighting Imposter Syndrome in the workplace, then your employees need to know you understand the issues and are on their side. Try running an IS awareness week, with posters, social media posts, discussion sessions, and useful information on how to recognise and combat it. Give people the chance to find out more information privately too – not everyone is willing to be open about how they feel.

Share your data: be open about what you’re doing to promote equity, diversity and inclusion. Share your current and past demographic data on pay, race, sex and ability across your organisation.

Encourage feedback: find out how your employees believe they can contribute to your organisation. Do they feel that they can grow and learn? Are there any barriers stopping them moving forward? Anonymous feedback surveys at set times throughout the year will help capture trends and always-on surveys allow employees to share instant feedback for an up-to-minute picture.

Give credit: use your comms to give your employees credit where it’s due. Celebrate hard work by publicly acknowledging individual contributions and successes, which in turn will foster wellbeing and increase motivation and productivity. Don’t forget the little wins – these can be a great confidence booster.

If you or your team notice an employee who is constantly overworking, avoids feedback, reluctant to ask for help, consistently downplaying their accomplishments or turning down new opportunities, then be sure to openly demonstrate your belief in their abilities. But be mindful that the answer may lie less in boosting their confidence and more in ensuring your business culture is one where all are welcomed and supported to thrive.