We all have dreams of being successful in our chosen fields. Whether starting your own successful business or working your way up the corporate ladder quickly, success in your career can come with feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Like you’re a fraud who doesn’t deserve your achievements and will soon be exposed. This is known as “Imposter Syndrome” and it has become an increasingly relevant topic in the workplace.


This blog will explore what imposter syndrome is, what causes it, and 10 strategies to combat it both in yourself and within teams you manage.

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What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is not new. In fact, it was first described more than 40 years ago by a pair of psychologists, Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in a research publication on the “Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women”. In that paper, they described the imposter phenomenon as women having “a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” During their research they found that many women in their sample who had been successful academically or professionally attributed that success to clerical errors, mistakes by evaluators, or just dumb luck but never their own intelligence. In that original round of research – taking place in the 70s – Dr. Imes and Dr. Clance considered imposter syndrome to be a feminine issue. Citing internalized gender stereotypes as a reason that women were more likely than men to “project the cause of success outward to an external cause (luck) or to a temporary internal quality (effort) that they do not equate with inherent ability.” But after conducting further research years later, Dr. Clance concluded “in private practice it wasn’t as common for men to talk about it, but when [the survey] was anonymous, men were expressing it to the same degree as women.” In a recent interview with author Amy Cuddy, Clance said “if I could do it all over again, I’d call it Impostor Experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness. It’s something almost everyone experiences.” Moving forward we will discuss their research with the understanding that it applies to people of all genders.

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The psychologists described the symptoms of the imposter phenomenon as “generalized anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression, and frustration related to inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement.” Respondents felt that they were always on the verge of being found out as a fraud who is not actually intelligent or worthy of success and praise, no matter how much they had achieved.


The researchers described 4 common behavior patterns used by women who felt imposter syndrome.


Diligence and Hard Work

According to the researchers, many people are conditioned as children to believe that intelligence is being able to do things with ease. To get high test scores without studying, for example. Out of constant fear that their lack of “intelligence” would be exposed, many respondents dove head-first into hard work, study, and preparation so that no one would be able to tell the difference. After their hard work pays off with excellent performance and praise from their peers, they receive a temporary high before falling back into the cycle of feeling like a phony because of how much effort it takes them to achieve results. They develop “an unstated but vaguely aware belief that if she were to think she could succeed she would actually fail. Her belief takes on the quality of a magic ritual, which will guarantee at least an overt success.”


The second behavioral pattern involves withholding or downplaying your personal thoughts and endorsing the thoughts of others. This stems from the belief that you are an imposter, and because of that your thoughts must, by definition, be unworthy compared to your peers. This “intellectual flattery” can take many forms such as staying silent in a meeting even though you have an opposing viewpoint, or simply saying what you know your boss wants to hear.

Seeking Approval through Personality

The third pattern noted by the researchers involves “using charm and perceptiveness to win the approval of superiors”. Essentially, a person feeling imposter syndrome may strive to be popular socially and then turn that into being intellectually respected. “Typically, she believes, ‘I am stupid,’ but at another level she believes she is brilliant, creative, and special if only the right person would discover her genius and thereby help her believe in her intellect.” This can manifest itself several ways. They may find a person they respect and try to impress that person by being extremely friendly, funny, noticing everything they can about that person, learning about something they care deeply about, helping them solve personal problems, or even becoming flirtatious/romantically involved. Once the relationship is established and the intellectual respect is eventually earned, there are 2 harmful potential outcomes noted by the researchers: 1) The person feeling imposter syndrome believes that any praise they get from their mentor is now based on their personality and not their intelligence, sending them on the search for a new mentor and restarting the cycle or 2) the person feeling imposter syndrome believes if they were really intelligent then they wouldn’t need outside approval, and since they are seeking approval they clearly are a fraud.

How to Fight Imposter Syndrome

The feeling of imposter syndrome happens to just about everyone at one point or another in their lives, so what can we do to stop ourselves from feeling that way?

Women talking with each other at work

As cliché as it may sound, acknowledging that there is a problem really is the first step to fixing that problem. Whenever you deal with feelings of inadequacy it’s important to confront them head-on and to voice them to others. Whether it be a therapist, coworker, friend, or family member it is best to talk it out with someone, and you’ll probably discover that they’ve felt the same way at some point.

Man working from home, reading tablet on floor

There’s no one-step magic cure you can find to confront self-doubt today and then never have to deal with it again. Self-doubt is a part of life for most of us and it will always come and go. Confront the feeling of being an imposter as it comes, and don’t feel like you’ve failed if the feeling comes back.

Woman sitting near window and reading cell phone

Scrolling through LinkedIn or Instagram and seeing the highlight reels of other people’s lives can make it feel like you’re missing some secret ingredient they have that makes them better, smarter, and more successful than you. That is usually not the case. It’s likely that they struggle with similar feelings of imposter syndrome as well. It’s important to be happy for the success of others and to learn lessons from it when you can but you also have to realize that other people’s achievements are not a commentary on your ability.

Woman working from home and making phone call at her desk

When you do come up short of expectations, it’s important that you learn to embrace failure without letting it define you. You may have failed at a certain task, but that doesn’t mean you are a failure. Learn what mistakes you’ve made and what factors you can change in the situation.

Woman looking off camera after explaining something during a meeting

When dealing with imposter syndrome it’s easy to think of yourself as a passive participant in your success. You might see yourself as someone who got lucky or a “system quarterback” that is doing something anybody else could do given the same opportunity. You might reflexively downplay compliments by saying things like “oh it’s no big deal, I didn’t do anything special.” Remember to take stock of what you do that creates your success. The effort you put in, the preparation, the ideas, the decision-making, etc. all matter and are things you can work to repeat.

How can you create a work environment for your employees that actively fights against feelings of imposter syndrome and helps to prevent them?

2 Women discussing a serious topic

It’s important as a manager to notice when your employees might be dealing with imposter syndrome that is holding them back from being their best. Perhaps a usually talkative employee is being quieter in meetings or an employee is self-deprecating and dismissive when they receive praise.  Take stock and understand that you might be seeing symptoms of imposter syndrome.

2 women having a meeting in a coffee shop

Just noticing imposter syndrome isn’t enough to fight it. Create a space where employees feel comfortable being vulnerable and voicing those feelings. If you’ve ever felt the same thing, share that with your coworkers so they know it’s not something they’re going through alone and they may feel comfortable discussing it with you. 

2 businessmen sitting in front of a laptop

Just noticing imposter syndrome isn’t enough to fight it. Create a space where employees feel comfortable being vulnerable and voicing those feelings. If you’ve ever felt the same thing, share that with your coworkers so they know it’s not something they’re going through alone and they may feel comfortable discussing it with you. 

Woman being interviewed for a job

Employees suffering from imposter syndrome may feel internal pressure to deliver impossible results in their work tasks or to compare themselves to outlier achievers on their teams. When setting expectations and goals with your employees be sure to set a realistic definition of success.

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As Patrick Kostwinder of Brunel said in our blog post about giving good feedback, "giving feedback as a gift? That is only possible when care and attention has been paid to the feedback and the other person really benefits from it." Giving both positive and negative feedback to an employee who may be dealing with imposter syndrome is incredibly important. When giving praise, emphasize the unique ways they have contributed to a project’s success. When giving negative feedback, be sure to decouple correctible mistakes from the employee’s personality or overall ability.

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As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic the nature of work, office culture, job searching, and employee retention best practices are changing rapidly. Brunel's Workplace blog has a finger on the pulse of the American workplace and delivers the latest news, trends and tips from around the country to help you better navigate the changing landscape. To stay up to date on new blog posts, please follow us on LinkedIn.

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