What Is Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace and Dealing with It

Robert G. Mull

Page Updated on October 3, 2022

Workplace imposter syndrome and overcoming it

What Is Imposter Syndrome (and Imposter Phenomenon)?

Imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a fraud or an imposter in one’s own life.

It is characterized by feelings of self-doubt, insecurity, and inadequacy, despite evidence to the contrary.

These feelings can be crippling and can prevent individuals from achieving their full potential.

Impostor syndrome is often seen in high-achieving individuals and is thought to be fueled by perfectionism and a fear of failure.

If you think you might be suffering from imposter syndrome, know that you are not alone.

Many successful people have dealt with these same feelings at some point in their lives.

‘Imposter Syndrome’ as a term originates from the term ‘Imposter Phenomenon’ from an academic paper by Dr Pauline Clance & Suzanne Imes, two psychologists, in 1978.

Since their use of the term ‘imposter phenomenon‘ the term ‘syndrome‘ is now more commonly used and rather than just referring to high-achieving women (the people researched by Pauline and Suzanne) can be used for anyone suffering the symptoms associated with this term.

A more recent definition I wrote is as follows:

Definition of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that can occur when people doubt their accomplishments or feel like they are frauds. Despite evidence of their success, they feel like they are not good enough or do not deserve the success they have achieved. They feel like an imposter.

Imposter Syndrome can lead to feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem, and even depression. While imposter syndrome is more common among people who are high achievers, it can affect anyone.

Imposter syndrome is not an official diagnosis, but it is a real phenomenon that can cause significant distress

Dr Paul Symonds, 2020

Signs of Imposter Syndrome

There are a few key signs and symptoms that may indicate that you are suffering from imposter syndrome. If you identify with any of these, it is worth exploring further:

1. Feeling Like a Fraud or an Impostor

Do you ever feel like you are just pretending to be successful?

Do you feel like you are fooling everyone around you, and that it is only a matter of time until you are exposed?

These are classic signs that you are suffering from imposter syndrome.

2. Self-doubt and Insecurity

Do you second-guess yourself constantly? Do you doubt your abilities, even when you have evidence that you are good at what you do?

Individuals with imposter syndrome often have difficulty trusting their own instincts and judgment.

3. Fear of Failure

Are you afraid of failing, even though you know that everyone experiences setbacks at times?

Individuals with imposter syndrome often have an irrational fear of failure, and this can prevent them from taking risks or trying new things.

4. Perfectionism

Is perfection something that you are constantly trying to achieve? Do you beat yourself up when you make a mistake, even if it is minor?

Perfectionism is often seen in individuals with imposter syndrome, as they feel that they must be perfect in order to be successful.

5. Difficulty Accepting Compliments

Do you have trouble accepting compliments?

Do you brush off praise, or feel like you don’t deserve it?

Individuals with imposter syndrome often have difficulty accepting compliments, as they feel that they are not really deserving of them.

If you identify with any of these signs and symptoms, it is worth exploring further to see if you are suffering from impostor syndrome.

Remember, many successful people have dealt with imposter syndrome at some point in their lives.

Examples of Imposter Syndrome at Work

Imposter syndrome as a new manager

1. Starting a New Job Role and Feeling Unworthy

This is especially common when you are starting a new work role whereby you know that some or many of the people who will manage, actually have more experience than you.

Even though you have got the job because you deserve it and because you have the potential to become a great leader, you might focus mentally at first too much on the great individual skills your team have rather than the great management skills you have.

Hence, you might feel like an imposter and unworthy in your new role. It happens to many of us in a new work role.

2. Famous People in Careers Where They Have Reached the Top

There are many famous examples of imposter syndrome. J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, has said that she still feels like an imposter even though she is one of the most successful authors of all time.

Likewise, Maya Angelou, another highly accomplished author, has also spoken about her experiences with imposter syndrome.

High achievers including lawyers, doctors, and CEOs are just as prone to this condition, as the likes of J.K. Rowling, with the sense of not deserving the success playing on the mind of the person in question.

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Overcoming imposter syndrome
Overcoming imposter syndrome

While imposter syndrome is not an official diagnosis, it is a real and debilitating condition that can affect your work performance and mental health. If you think you may be suffering from impostor syndrome, there are steps you can take to manage it.

1. Share the Problem

The old adage that a problem shared is a problem halved certainly has relevance here.

Talking to someone you trust about your feelings of fraudulence can be incredibly therapeutic, and you will very often find that the other person will put your concerns into some context.

It can be helpful to talk to someone who will understand and can offer support and encouragement.

2. Learn to Appreciate Your Achievement and Worthiness

Considering that the cause of imposter syndrome is often because we fail to acknowledge our own true worth, it makes sense to work on understanding one’s own achievements.

Identify your accomplishments and give yourself credit where it is due.

It is important to remember that your success is not achieved by accident and that you have earned your success through hard work and talent.

3. Challenging Negative Thoughts

Challenge your negative thoughts about yourself.

When you have a negative thought about your abilities, take a moment to question it.

Is there evidence to support this belief? If not, let the thought go.

Challenging and letting go of these negative thoughts is not easy at first but with practice, it can become easier.

4. Focus on the Process

Focus on the process, not the outcome.

Rather than fixating on the end result, focus on the process of what you are doing.

This can help you to feel more in control and less like a fraud.

Types of Imposter

There are four main types of impostors and these are the:

  • perfectionist
  • expert
  • individualist
  • natural genius
  • and superstar

Perfectionists

Perfectionists are individuals who set extremely high standards for themselves and feel like they can never meet these standards as a result.

They are often their own worst critics and can be very hard on themselves and they tend to try and overcompensate for the workload to try and cover all possibilities.

Experts

Experts are individuals who feel like they need to know everything about their field and be the absolute best at it.

They often put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect and can be very critical of their own work.

Individualists

Individualists are people who feel like they have to do everything on their own and that they can’t rely on anyone else. They often feel like they are the only ones who can do things right and that everyone else is just trying to hold them back.

Natural Geniuses

Natural geniuses are individuals who tend to be naturally gifted and think that they don’t have to put in any effort to be successful.

You can probably picture in your mind someone you went to school with who so easily was top for several subjects or who captained every sports team without any special effort.

Natural geniuses often coast along on their natural ability and don’t see the need to put in any extra work.

The problem, in respect of imposter syndrome, comes when these natural geniuses fail to get the work, rewards, and opportunities, that they are used to so easily getting in the past.

Superstar

You choose to take on more responsibility than you really should as you like to be in control.

You put such pressure on yourself to be too good at everything, both in your work and home life, that it can inevitably be very hard to meet your own expectations. Hence, you might feel like a fraud because of this.

Other Useful Resources

You might also find these resources useful if would like to find out more about imposter syndrome in the workplace.

Classroom lesson plans
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Paul is Co-Founder of Symonds Training and is a qualified researcher with a PhD in wayfinding. Paul helps the team at Symonds Training build and focus on providing high-quality training materials packages and programs for trainers, classroom teachers and HR departments.

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