Understanding imposter syndrome

Understanding imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is an ongoing (potentially debilitating) feeling of self-doubt. Many people can recall feeling over their heads on a project or work-related situation, but true imposter syndrome isn’t a one-time occurrence. It comes with persistent feelings of inadequacy—even when a person’s track record indicates otherwise. These feelings can be accompanied by worries that others will discover they’re not actually qualified or smart enough to serve on a project or in a new role.

Imposter syndrome isn’t a diagnosable mental health disorder; however, this cycle of fear and negative thinking can hurt a person’s psychological and physical health, as well as their personal and professional well-being. Learn more about imposter syndrome, how it shows up, and how leaders can support their teams when doubt arises.

How Does Imposter Syndrome Influence My Team?

There isn’t a single known cause for imposter syndrome, but high-pressure situations tend to bring out the most common signs and symptoms. It may not be surprising, then, that many people experience symptoms when at work. One recent study showed that 62% of knowledge workers reported dealing with imposter syndrome.

Men and women experience imposter syndrome, though research shows that these groups respond differently to feelings of inadequacy. According to Forbes, research indicates, “Men tend to underperform, avoiding challenging goals and feedback, while women challenge themselves even more to prove their worth, but are never relieved of stress and anxiety, even when performing as expected.”

Failing to recognize and address imposter syndrome at work can lead to:

  • Job dissatisfaction from perceived feelings of inferiority or underperforming
  • Burnout from constantly trying to prove their worth, whether by taking on too many responsibilities or working longer hours
  • Lack of confidence that stalls productivity or prevents them from going for promotions or new roles where they could excel

This doesn’t apply solely to entry- or mid-level employees, either. According to research from Asana, “Team members in more senior positions are more likely than average to experience impostor syndrome.”

In his own experience with imposter syndrome, Bazaarvoice CEO Keith Nealon found that a CEO’s “greatest responsibility” is to their own wellness because if you’re not well mentally, physically, and emotionally, “You can’t be an inspiring leader, and you need to be for people to follow you.”

Advice for Managing Imposter Syndrome

CEOs and other rising leaders who notice signs of imposter syndrome in their behavior are better equipped to help employees who have similar feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Working with a coach helped Nealon understand why his feelings manifested as imposter syndrome. The mantra he received continues to direct his thoughts when doubt resurfaces: “I have nothing to worry about except what I'm worrying myself about.”

Reframing negative thoughts in this manner is one way to work through imposter syndrome. Consider using these strategies as well:

Foster a supportive work culture. This includes noting negative self-talk among employees and offering facts and evidence-based achievements in place of perceived shortcomings or failures.

Adopt a fact-based mindset. When self-doubt creeps up, counter with facts. Keep a record of achievements and work you’re proud of and refer to it as needed. Those in leadership positions can also maintain similar records for direct reports or other senior-level employees while encouraging team managers to do the same.

Coach performance managers by offering constructive feedback. Providing managers and other staff with career-planning resources can also help start a realistic discussion about job skills, satisfaction, and career goals.

Assign mentors outside of a person’s area of responsibility. This cross-team mentor-mentee partnership offers another way to receive feedback, support, and advice from someone with an outside perspective.

By catching negative thinking cycles before they spiral out of control and looking to leaders for guidance, people experiencing imposter syndrome can learn to stop second-guessing themselves and find fulfillment — not fear — at work.

Written by

Megan Snyder
Megan Snyder

Senior Editor | CEO.com

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