Why You Should Care About Impostor Syndrome In Your Workplace

People with Impostor Syndrome believe they are not as competent as others perceive them to be.  Usually this definition is narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement (often in regards to work or a career), but it also has links to perfectionism and social situations. 

Oftentimes, those with Impostor Syndrome feel like they're a fraud and live life fearful that they are going to be discovered at any moment.  They feel like they don't belong where they are, and only got there through luck. This can affect anyone regardless of their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise. As a leader, this can significantly influence your organization's performance. 

So, today, we're going to put you in the shoes of an employee suffering from impostor syndrome and talk about: 

  • The causes of Impostor Syndrome
  • Ways of boosting your self confidence
  • How to handle failure

Of course if you want to explore this topic in much greater depth, and how it applies to employee performance in the workplace, we have a workshop series that gives hands-on practice in eliminating impostor syndrome and improving employee performance. You can find out about it here: How to Improve Employee Performance with Data & Intelligence.

What Causes Impostor Syndrome?


The term Impostor Syndrome was first used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance back in the 1970s. When the concept was introduced, it was originally thought to apply only to high-achieving women. Since then, however, it has been acknowledged as a much more widespread experience.

There are many theories as to why people develop Impostor Syndrome.  When Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance first coined the term in their groundbreaking paper “The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention” back in 1978, they attributed it to a number of different factors.

Initially it attributed to women being under represented in corporate America and that Impostor Syndrome was often down to gender conditioning.  Now that we know that Impostor Syndrome is just as prevalent in men, this initial theory has since been discounted.

However, family dynamics is a leading cause of Impostor Syndrome. The expectations and the value of success that you learned to live by in our childhood years can stay with you throughout life.  Maybe you come from a family of high achievers and feel that you can't measure up unless you strive for perfection.  On the other hand, perhaps your family had fairly low expectations of you and didn't think you'd amount to much. 

As a consequence, you feel you can’t be the successful person you are now because that wasn't who you were meant to be. Maybe your parents were overly critical and would find fault with everything; now you carry on the habit yourself and question your abilities.

Starting to make sense?

Cultural conditioning might also be a factor.  Different cultures put different emphasis on things like education and achievement as well as what type of occupation constitutes a “real” job.  The fact that you can make a good living doing something others consider “lightweight” or "easy" may weigh heavily (and unnecessarily) on you.

Many sectors of society rate talent and natural ability below training and knowledge. You might be a natural storyteller, but because you don’t have a Masters Degree in English Literature, you figure that any success must be a fluke. 

The key here is to identify the cause and look at it rationally.  Ask yourself if there’s any merit to what you’re thinking.  Chances are you won’t find any.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome & Giving Your Self Confidence a Boost


Now, I’m sure all of you here reading this had many successes in your life.  After all, Impostor Syndrome is a byproduct of success.

And you know something?

Those successes weren’t because you were lucky, they were because you were good.  Really!  You might not believe me but it's true.

Some people with Impostor Syndrome also suffer from low self confidence.  It's not hard to see why; after all, if you think you've gotten everything so far by luck, you're likely to doubt your real abilities.

There are many ways you can boost your self confidence, and I want to talk about a couple of them today.

Self confidence comes from within, so the first step should be to practice positive self-talk.  We all talk to ourselves - it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. Our minds are always carrying on an internal conversation of thoughts.

What kind of conversation are YOU having in your head?

If you're like a lot of people with Impostor Syndrome, that conversation is likely to be a negative one.  Thoughts like: “I can't do this.” or “This can't be right; it's too easy.” etc.

Thoughts like this impact your ability to lead.

Instead of saying “I can't do this.” start telling yourself “This is going to be a challenge; let's see how it goes.” When you manage to accomplish your goal, reassure yourself by saying: “Yes, I got that right.” or “That was easier than I thought it was going to be”.

The second thing you'll want to do is to surround yourself with positive people – people who believe in you.  Accept their compliments and praise.  If they don't think you're a fraud, there's no reason why you should. 

Handling and Moving Beyond Failure


Now, despite what we've discussed so far, sometimes things won't go according to plan and you will fail.  Quite often this happens at work or when you have to rely heavily on other people who may have their own agenda that doesn't exactly tie-in with your goal as a leader.  

Sometimes a plan will fail due to factors outside your control, or because of something you didn't know about, overlooked or didn't take into consideration when putting your plan together.  Other times a plan will fail because of some unknown factor. When that happens, the only way to figure out what works is by eliminating everything that doesn't work.  THAT type of failure is actually good, and (with perseverance) can be turned into success.

Here's an example… 

Somewhere in your home you probably have a can of WD-40.  Well, WD-40 is short for Water Displacement 40th Formula.  The creators of WD-40 tried (and failed) 39 times before finding a formula that worked. Despite all that effort, these days the product doesn't get used for its original purpose very often.  WD-40 was intended to stop the warheads of Cold War rockets getting rusty, but nowadays most people use it as a lubricant. 

The key to overcoming failure and turning it into success is to dissect the failure, work out WHY what you were trying to do failed, and then either figure out a workaround if your goal is still achievable, or just simply file the experience away for future reference to make sure it never happens again.  Either way, you learn from the experience. 


Final Thoughts

We talked about the causes of Impostor Syndrome and how to detect it in yourself and in your workplace. We covered some ways of boosting self confidence, how to handle (and learn from) failure. I want to give you some practical tips for overcoming Impostor Syndrome. First of all, I want you to redefine competence. Competent people know what they're good at and what they’re not. Transform yourself and your employees into confident and competent people. Do what you say you will do, but don't over-promise. Secondly, stop comparing yourself to other people.  You are YOU, and there are lots of factors concerning other people's lives that you know nothing about.

Finally, think of some of your successes – both large and small.  Write down everything you did to achieve them.  Go back over all the steps you took.  You'll find that luck had very little (if anything) to do with those successes.  Anytime you start to feel unworthy or the success you're having, re-read those notes to remind yourself of the effort you've put in to get where you are today.  To learn how your operations data can play a key role in overcoming impostor syndrome and improving performance in the workplace, join our upcoming workshop: How to Improve Employee Performance with Data & Intelligence.

What are some other ways that impostor syndrome shows up in you or your workplace? Let us know in the comments below.


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