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