Why is it important for managers to recognise and deal with the Impostor Phenomenon?

If you are leading a company and want to ensure that even those suffering from the Impostor Syndrome unleash their potential, the ultimate way to achieve this is to be supportive, according to Helena Gonzalez-Gomez and Sarah Hudson

Imagine that you are convinced that you are not deserving of your job, and that your current success is due to luck or charm. The Impostor Phenomenon (IP) or Syndrome is the feeling that one’s success is due to unrelated factors, rather than one’s competence and qualifications. It may have important consequences on the creativity, performance and even career success of many high potential individuals. According to our research, there are ways to understand, manage and unleash the potential of employees who feel like impostors.

Reasons for managers to help Impostor Syndrome victims

There are indeed three main reasons why managers should help those who are affected by IP. The first is that these people tend to be high potential individuals, who are very valuable for businesses, but they are being impeded from unleashing their talent and showing high performance and creativity. Studies done on the subject have found that, paradoxically, IP is particularly prominent in individuals with outstanding professional and academic accomplishments, and it is also heightened in women.

Second, it is vital to support those with IP because suffering from IP may generate higher levels of stress, lowered commitment at work, and even decreased job satisfaction. This can lead to the person trying to find a job elsewhere. As such, nurturing those who possess these qualities will retain talent in the long-term.

Finally, because the Impostor Syndrome is linked to a fear of being exposed as a fraud, of not deserving to be there, it can influence employee commitment and creativity, and thus performance. Importantly, performance is not affected due to lack of skills or capacity, but because of this continuous fear to ‘being discovered as a fraud’. This may inhibit employees with the Impostor Syndrome from proactively working on projects and voicing new ideas. In other words, it may refrain them from showing who they really are and to exploit their abilities to their maximum. Therefore, managers should keep this in mind and encourage those with IP with positive and regular feedback.

Why do individuals suffer from the Impostor Syndrome?

There are various reasons that explain the appearance of the Impostor Syndrome. Two, commonly signalled as explanatory mechanisms, are family dynamics in terms of pressure to perform and societal expectations for high performance.

We wanted to explore this further and as such, in our research, we conducted four studies involving more than 600 employees in Europe and used a variety of methodologies (experiments and surveys). We measured how the degree of Impostor Syndrome on employees affected various key outcomes: Employee creativity, employee tendency to engage in extra-role behaviours (called citizenship behaviours), employees’ perception that they can be employed somewhere else, and a series of factors indicating career success i.e. promotion, performance evaluation, and salary.

Our key findings were as follows. First, those reporting high levels of the Impostor Syndrome are likely to feel ashamed, particularly when they attribute their past failures to themselves as opposed to external circumstances. As a result, the shame experienced by employees with Impostor Syndrome impacts negatively on their creativity.

However, we also found that the same shame observed in ‘impostors’ may have a positive effect on the citizenship behaviours adopted by the employee. This is so because apparently impostors may engage in helping behaviours to compensate for their self-perceived inadequacy or to conceal that they have doubts about their worthiness.

We also found that companies with rigid organisational structures, which have less flexibility in work processes, rules, and regulations, may worsen the already detrimental effect that suffering from the Impostor Syndrome has on employee creativity. The findings also indicated that the Impostor Syndrome may also have a negative relationship with career success measured as the number of promotions and positive performance evaluations received over an employee’s career.

Ultimately though, we found that impostors have the perception that, because they are not worthy, the probability of finding a job elsewhere is low.

How to cope with Impostor Syndrome

But what if you feel like you are the Impostor – what should you do? First, people suffering from the Impostor Syndrome can take various actions to alleviate this feeling. First, try to get surrounded by people who show support for the work you are doing rather than by people who put pressure on for high performance or who are competitive at work. They will only accentuate the feeling you are currently experiencing.

Second, try to start believing in you. Remember that your current position is partly explained because someone (and in most cases this involves several people) saw worthiness and value in you at some point. Third, whenever possible, reach out for help and support from colleagues or managers; you may find yourself surprised at finding more support than you thought you could have.

If you are a manager with a highly valuable employee suffering from the Impostor Syndrome, there are also a few things you can do to help the situation from developing. Firstly, it is important to not put too much pressure on the person experiencing IP. The Impostor Syndrome may arise for a variety of reasons. But one thing is really important for the manager to understand: when someone is not confident about their worthiness, more pressure for high performance may accentuate this feeling. Think about alternative ways to encourage your employees that do not involve putting too much pressure about high performance goals.

As well as this, your feedback should become more task-oriented. Managerial feedback that avoids direct attributions of personal failure and rather focuses on how to improve performance in a more neutral manner is likely to increase confidence and creativity in individuals with the Impostor Phenomenon. Why? Because providing (especially negative) feedback about the person’s qualities and failures may lead employees to feel ashamed and therefore to perceive that they have failed to the eyes of others. Instead, feedback that is directed to the task or job to do, is more neutral and does not imply attributions of internal blame.

If you are leading a company and want to ensure that even those suffering from the Impostor Syndrome unleash their potential, the ultimate way to achieve this is to be supportive. Promote environments that are supportive and welcoming instead of conflictive and too competitive, where a person suffering from the impostor syndrome may more easily cope with those feelings and start to perform at the best of their capacities. You should also aim to be flexible. To the extent that it is possible, your employees with the Impostor Syndrome will be less negatively affected if the company structure is flexible rather than rigid. They will be less likely to allow their feelings to overcome them, if they perceive more flexibility in the company’s work processes, rules, and regulations.

To go further:

Hudson, S., & González-Gómez, H. V. (2021). Can impostors thrive at work? The impostor phenomenon’s role in work and career outcomes. Journal of Vocational Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2021.103601

Helena González-Gómez is Associate professor in the People and Organisations department of NEOMA Business School. She has a PhD in Management from IE Business School, Spain. Her research has appeared in journals such as Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Business Strategy, Journal of  Vocational Behavior, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and Psychology and Marketing. She teaches organisational behaviour, leadership, human resource management, and creativity. Prior to her doctoral studies, she worked in the banking industry and filled positions in corporate banking, operations, information security and project management.

Sarah Hudson is Associate professor in the Management and Organisation department of Rennes School of Business. She completed her PhD at Sheffield University, UK. Her work has been published in journals such Journal of Business Ethics and Journal of Business Research. She teaches and publishes on the topic of CSR, sustainable development, and business ethics. Her current research interests are in the human behavioural and psychological elements of managerial decision-making, employee well-being and consumer behaviour and attitudes to the issues of sustainability, CSR and business ethics.

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