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Imposter syndrome at work and how to help your people overcome it

Regardless of their many accomplishments, high-achieving employees can often suffer from imposter syndrome at work. Help your people see their value with these tips. 

Have you ever looked around a conference (or Zoom) room and felt like you didn’t deserve your seat at the table? Or, have you ever lauded a colleague for achieving a project goal, only to see him or her immediately deny that their personal efforts contributed to the win?

Imposter syndrome clouds people’s view of themselves – and hinders their ability to see their accomplishments, successes, and overall competence in the same way others do.

And it’s more than just being humble or lacking self-confidence; imposter syndrome makes employees feel undeserving and it can hold employees back from reaching their full potential.

The good news? Managers can play a pivotal role in reshaping how employees see themselves – and help them overcome their imposter syndrome.

Take the next steps in fostering belonging and bravery at your organization

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the belief people hold that they’re not good enough or deserving of their achievements and related praise. They often experience feelings of self-doubt, feel like a fraud,  question their own merits, and have low self-confidence.

People who suffer from imposter syndrome at work often believe that they’re not competent or capable of their jobs or roles in an academic or professional environment and that soon, someone will discover they’re an imposter – hence the name imposter syndrome.

What causes imposter syndrome at work?

Those who suffer from this phenomenon often have similar personality traits, including an external locus of control – meaning that they believe their accomplishments to be attributed to external factors like good luck or timing versus hard work or expertise. People may also have an inclination for perfectionism or neuroticism.

At work, people often experience acute imposter syndrome when they’re given praise or a reward, such as when:

  • Being recognized by a manager for a job well done
  • Getting promoted
  • Receiving a raise or bonus

When attention is given to an employee with imposter syndrome, the employee will feel like a fraud; that he or she doesn’t deserve the recognition or reward – and that the success shouldn’t be attributed to his or her efforts.

An employee might also experience imposter syndrome at work if he or she has been successful, but then suddenly experiences a failure at work. This sudden turn of events can trigger an employee to question his or her capabilities and competence to do the job.

How to help your employees with overcoming imposter syndrome

Growth is a fundamental human need, and employees generally want to feel a sense of growth in their role and that their work is offering something to them.

When employees experience imposter syndrome, it is nearly impossible for them to feel a sense of growth and development – and in turn, their engagement and productivity at work can suffer.

Fortunately, managers can help their employees overcome imposter syndrome and get back on the right track to growing, developing, and thriving at work.

Here’s how:

1.  Foster a culture of psychological safety

Psychological safety is the belief people have where they can voice their thoughts and opinions freely, without fear of repercussions or embarrassment. This is supported by an environment where managers encourage team members to be their best.

At work, employees feel psychologically safe when they can not only share their ideas (such as in a brainstorming session) or challenge the status quo, but also when they know that their peers, colleagues, and leaders will not reject or punish them for doing so.

For those experiencing imposter syndrome, working in an environment where they feel psychologically safe can help build the foundation for expressing  – and addressing – their feelings of being undeserving or not good enough.

2. Coach employees to aim for progress, not perfection

A big part of imposter syndrome is fear. But managers are in an ideal position to help employees overcome the fears that prevent them from striving for success.

One way to do this is to take time during one-on-one meetings to talk about an employee’s progress since they’ve started in the role or on the team. Talk about what they’ve done well, the obstacles they’ve overcome to get where they are, and so on.

Another tip is for managers to lead by example and talk about their own wins and losses. Showing that everyone makes mistakes – and what can be learned from making said mistakes – will help reinforce the message of “progress, not perfection.”

3. Reward, recognize, repeat

Employees with imposter syndrome often feel like they don’t belong. Acknowledging their expertise and accomplishments with rewards and recognition helps to reinforce that they are not only worthy of what they have accomplished, but also the praise they’re given for their efforts.

4. Talk to your employees about mental health and well-being

Our 2022 Employee Experience Trends report revealed that people are burned out from a workplace culture that doesn’t support, sustain, or restore employee well-being.

One way to get started supporting your employees’ well-being is by simply talking to them about it. According to our research, employees say the number one thing holding them back from taking care of their mental health is that leaders don’t talk about it enough at work and it becomes taboo.

Leaders talking about mental health openly – including when they’ve felt (or still feel) the effects of imposter syndrome – helps to remove the stigma.

5. Lead with bravery (and vulnerability)

Managers who lead with bravery and vulnerability will help employees overcome imposter syndrome.

How, exactly?

We know it takes individual bravery to express your full, authentic self. But the burden to be brave shouldn’t sit with your people. The onus should be on businesses to create a psychologically safe space that makes it easy for employees to bring more of themselves to the table.

Doing so demands both bravery and vulnerability at the senior leadership level.

One way to show bravery as a leader is to invite broad input into decision-making. Many organizations still defer towards rigid, patriarchal, top-down decision-making that feels safe. (Hint: It isn’t, and it’s only becoming less so.)

Your people are your biggest asset. Give them freedom to contribute – to show you value their voices, yes. But also to harness their purpose, passion, energy, and creativity to solve the problems you and your customers face.

Democratizing decision-making will also demonstrate to those experiencing imposter syndrome at work that their contributions are valued and needed. And hopefully, the next time their voice is heard, they’ll feel confident, competent, and deserving of their seat at the table where decisions are made.

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