Is your company culture fuelling imposter syndrome?
Imagine being surrounded by people at work who secretly view themselves as complete frauds. Sounds crazy? It’s not. According to research carried out by psychologists Clance and Matthews, up to 70% of people could experience imposter syndrome at some point during their career. Here’s another thought. Is your company culture making matters worse by reinforcing the negative thought patterns and behaviours that led them to consider themselves as fakes in the first place?
Women are particularly adept at convincing themselves they’re unworthy: situations like returning to work after maternity leave are notorious for amplifying any negative thoughts that might be swirling around. But this isn’t exclusively a female issue. Many men struggle with it too. Even the not exactly low-achieving Albert Einstein is believed to have suffered with it.
The slow poison of imposter syndrome
Frankly, there are all kinds of moments that can temporarily convince people they are pretty useless at what they do. Come on. We’ve all been there. That time you blagged your way onto a high profile project then suddenly realised you were waaayyy out of your depth. The time you said something in a meeting to sound knowledgeable but actually, you didn’t really fully understand it. Suddenly you found yourself feeling horribly exposed and trying to backtrack rapidly so you didn’t look stupid…
Yep. Been there, done that. But the difference is you probably recognised it for what it was. A one-off screw up. Well, ok, maybe more than a one off but who’s counting? People with imposter syndrome don’t see it that way. They see it as yet more evidence of their inabilities. They internalise every instance then let it cast a shadow over everything they do – including all the successes.
The perfectionist who never thinks what they’ve done is good enough. The person who’s achieved academic success but thinks it’s all a fluke – they were just lucky the right questions came up in the exams. The person who has to put effort into accomplishing something and is therefore convinced they’re really bad at it. The person who decides sheer luck got them that job and their employer would be horrified to realise how incapable they actually were. Ironically, the more successful these kinds of people get, the more they feel like a total imposter.
Is your culture creating imposter syndrome?
Many businesses are completely unaware it’s an issue. But the scary thing is their cultures could actually be reinforcing it. Even worse, creating it. How? By criticising when problems and failures occur; by tacitly endorsing behaviours like routinely working late – sufferers often feel they have to work harder than others just to prove their worth; by never encouraging employees to recognise the achievements of others. People struggle on to maintain the illusion that all is well – but the rot’s already set in. And it spreads.
Imposter Syndrome alert – it’s doing serious damage
Employees become increasingly self-critical. It drains confidence and self-esteem. Relationships and trust are undermined. A culture that breeds imposter syndrome can foster anxiety, procrastination and a cycle of overworking which ends in burnout. It can result in individuals trying to stay hidden away, avoiding promotions and work opportunities because they just don’t think they can do it. Creativity and innovation wither. Talented employees fail to see what an asset they are, disengage with the business and end up utterly demotivated.
Is that the kind of culture you want? Is that the culture that, right now, you are unintentionally promoting?
You might have a problem. What are you going to do about it?
Managers play a pivotal role here. Make them aware of the risks imposter syndrome poses and how they can spot it. Not only can they be coached to identify anyone with it: it also helps managers recognise anything they might be doing that’s reinforcing those negative beliefs in others.
With that awareness, they can help develop confidence in all their team members by providing the right levels of skill, knowledge, coaching and training. Managing imposter syndrome requires striking a balance. It needs positive conversations in the moment, encouraging feedback to recognise and celebrate achievements. But it also means giving people opportunities to learn, grow – and fail.
No one can deliver perfection. Failure is normal. That’s an essential cultural message to get out there. Constructively embracing and learning from those failures is invaluable. It reassures people. No one is expected to have every answer at their fingertips and getting it wrong, and learning from that experience, is ok too.
There’s no quick fix here. But by constantly reinforcing what employees have achieved and providing them with a psychologically safe environment, you’re on the road towards a positive culture where confidence grows and people won’t feel they have to fake who they are or what they are capable of.
How to spot imposter syndrome
- It’s in the language – “I can’t do that… I’m not capable… I’m not as good as…”.
- Their response to a compliment is often a counterargument about why they don’t deserve it.
- They resist being described as an expert – even if they’ve been in position for some time, sufferers remain convinced they still don’t know ‘enough’.
Coaching exercises that you can do…
- Name imposter syndrome for what it really is to start creating control over it. Talk to your team about the fact it isn’t reality – it’s a personal perception to be overcome.
- Drive a coaching culture and reinforce people’s sense of worth by celebrating small successes as they happen for individuals and teams. Highlight the great work that’s been done and capture valuable learning when things don’t go to plan.
- Share feedback as teams. Encourage team members to explain what they appreciate about other team members. Share what you believe to be their greatest achievements to give them a warm glow and confidence boost.
- Encourage a team member who is showing signs of low self-belief to mentor others – it can help them begin to realise how much they actually know.
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