Impostor syndrome

By: Judy Kneiszel

Publication: Employee Relations Management Today

Date Posted: 07/19/2019

Employees unable to accept accomplishments

Lindsey is always the first one in the office in the morning and the last to leave at night. She meets deadlines and her work is always stellar.

The only person who doesn’t realize that is Lindsey.

She brushes off compliments on her work, and despite receiving consistently positive performance reviews, she believes she is always just one mistake away from being fired. This causes Lindsey to suffer from anxiety and it is having a negative effect on her personal relationships.

Lindsey may be experiencing impostor syndrome. First described by psychologists in the 1970s, impostor syndrome occurs when people are unable to accept their accomplishments. Those who suffer from impostor syndrome attribute their success to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will unmask them as frauds.

Long term, the stress of living with impostor syndrome can cause anxiety and depression, which can impact a person’s work performance and health.

Syndrome sufferers also tend to be afraid to speak up in meetings, seek out promotions, or advocate for themselves in any way. That means they are contributing less than they are capable of, despite their diligence.

Those with impostor syndrome often have an unhealthy work-life balance because they work excessive amounts of overtime to avoid being perceived as lazy.

Impostor syndrome sufferer

Impostor syndrome sufferers:

  • Fear they will fail at every task they perform
  • Feel that they will be exposed as frauds
  • Devalue their contributions to team projects
  • Underestimate their experience or expertise

Not all impostors are alike. In fact, there are five types:

  1. Perfectionists. Always feel like they could have done better … even when they succeed.
  2. The super woman or man. These impostors are always pushing themselves to do more, but never feel like they do enough.
  3. Geniuses. They base self-worth on ease and speed and feel shame if things don’t come to them quickly.
  4. The soloist. Believes asking for help shows weakness.
  5. Experts. Measure their competency on how much they know, but feel they can never know enough.

It may be hard to tell if an employee is being conscientious or is truly experiencing impostor syndrome. Creating a positive work atmosphere, however, can promote prevention, or even cure the condition.

Here are some practices to adopt in the workplace to combat impostor syndrome:

Create opportunities for mentorship. Young workers are especially susceptible to impostor syndrome. Getting feedback from a supportive, encouraging, experienced employee may boost their confidence.

Publicly acknowledge accomplishments. An employee whose suggestions are never acknowledged (even when they are implemented) may stop contributing. Show confidence in workers by calling out their good ideas.

Don’t treat mistakes like failures. Everyone makes mistakes. People who are berated for them will stop trying new things. Help employees learn from mistakes and move forward.

Encourage work-life balance. That may mean holding off on texting or emailing employees after hours and expecting immediate responses. Consider instituting a rule that staying two hours late one day means leaving two hours early another.

Set a good example of how to take criticism. If a manager comes down on a supervisor, that supervisor can choose to take it out on the team or correct the problem and move on. Try to show employees that there is a difference between feelings and facts, as in, “My boss made me feel like an idiot, but the fact is, I made a mistake and now I’m going to fix it. I know I’m still a valuable employee.”

Encourage employees to pat themselves, and each other, on the back. Feedback may be more believable when it comes from peers. Come up with a way for team members to publicly compliment each other and make it acceptable for people to sometimes toot their own horns.

If an individual team member shows clear signs of impostor syndrome, and you fear they are heading down the road to anxiety and/or depression, invite them to talk with you, someone from HR, or a therapist through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

About the author
Judy Kneiszel - Human Resources Editor

Judy is an Associate Editor on the Human Resources Publishing Team and she specializes in issues such as recruiting and hiring, onboarding and training, employee communication and discipline, managing problems, team building, inclusion, employee retention, and labor relations

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