Written Wednesday 27th April 2022

Impostor syndrome: what it is, and how to overcome it

We hear a lot about impostor syndrome. Have a quick scroll through your social media feeds and you’re bound to find at least one post from someone who can’t quite believe that they deserve their success. In fact, apparently, as of 2021, 77% of the UK suffers from impostor syndrome.

The term impostor syndrome is generally self explanatory; it means that the individual in question feels like an impostor or fraud when they experience success or achievements. Very often, there’s a fear of being ‘found out’, and a great deal of comparison, too. You may have felt this way at some point. Usually, the issue is heightened when paired with the tough combination of low confidence and perfectionism.

In the professional world, it’s rife. When impostor syndrome appears at work, it can come about when someone believes they have only got their job, or their promotion, due to luck and not because they are qualified. This can lead to a confidence crash, which can then go on to negatively impact their career path in general. Milestones and successes are minimised, and responsibilities or challenges are avoided for fear of failure – even if they’d be perfectly capable of meeting or overcoming them.

This has a knock-on effect on the organisation, too. Dr Lynda Shaw writes: “Impostor syndrome also affects the organisation by negatively impacting the mental health and wellbeing of employees which can result in workplace absenteeism and project setbacks […] The constant fear of failure related to Impostor syndrome leads to decreased creativity and innovation.”

When the term was devised in the seventies, it was mostly associated with successful working women. Nowadays, it’s understood to have a much wider impact on different people; but there’s a clear indication that underrepresented groups are still most affected – and racism plays a huge part in its presence.

The feeling of not belonging that comes with impostor syndrome works hand in hand with racism, bias and discrimination in the workplace. If a colleague feels that they got their job due to tokenism, for example, or if they are of a minority within the team, it exacerbates the feelings of ‘not belonging’ that also comes with Impostor Syndrome. Not only can this cause a crash in confidence, but colleagues may also attempt to prove themselves by overworking. 

Dr Lynda Shaw continues with this point: “If there is a bias or lack of diversity and inclusion at work, and you are in a minority, this can influence someone suffering with Impostor syndrome to work excessively because they feel they need to prove themselves more than others.”

An example of this lies within the American healthcare system. According to the 2022 National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing Foundational Report, 92% of Black nurses have recently experienced racism in their workplaces in 2021. In a public forum held to raise awareness of the report, it was found that “systemic racism creates the fear of not belonging and feelings of impostor syndrome among nurses of color,” illustrating that the two issues are indeed connected. This is further proof that racism and discrimination continues to be a major problem within the working world.

Since the impact of impostor syndrome is considerable on an individual and organisational level, and the contributing factors (eg racism and discrimination) run even deeper, the challenge to eradicate the issue is a significant one. Managers may focus on getting team members to change, with training and workshops on boosting each person’s confidence and empowerment. While this is not an invalid approach to take, it’s key to solve it from the root, and to look at what cultures and attitudes within the organisation can be changed for good. As Dr Kecia Thomas says in an article in the Harvard Business Review: “It’s easier to set up a professional development programme, put money into training, or to even pay for a coach or a mentor rather than think about the values, ideologies, and subsequent practices amidst the severe underrepresentation in organizations that create impostor syndrome as a mainstay,” 

So, what elements of your organisation can be improved to make impostor syndrome a thing of the past for the whole team? Here are some ideas to get you started.

Look at how your company is running

Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey say in the Harvard Business Review: “When it comes to women of all races and people of color of all genders, acknowledging impostor syndrome without naming its context within systems of racism and bias is arguably a form of gaslighting.”  

It’s all very well understanding that impostor syndrome is a problem for your team, but neglecting to understand where it comes from and the greater issues it comes with will mean problems will persist. It’s like weeding a garden; if you don’t pull out the root, it’ll keep coming back. It’s better for your people, and your business, if you direct your attention to the inner workings of your organisation, and perhaps the archaic approaches to people management and development. From simply celebrating successes, to reshaping your recruitment process, ensuring your working community is built on equality, diversity and inclusivity – and thus eradicating any racism and discrimination – will prevent further issues such as Impostor Syndrome.

Listen to your team

Listen to the language your team is using when they talk about their work. Use annual reviews and regular catch-ups to assess whether individuals are owning their own successes, or are downplaying their abilities. If impostor syndrome seems to be an issue, try to find the common link, or ask for further feedback from the team on what they need to feel supported enough. 

Celebrate success

Most teams collect data or information to show development and progress. Graphs, facts and figures not only show when the organisation or business is thriving, but also when the people behind the project have been meeting their goals and fulfilling their potential. Ensure you are using this data to empower your people as well as track your performance.

While we’re on the subject, make sure you genuinely celebrate successes – and not just the data driven ones. Development and progress doesn’t always come in the shape of a line chart.

Identify barriers

What barriers lie within your structure that stop your team from really progressing? Are you sharing opportunities equally? Are you offering training where colleagues feel they have a gap in their CV?  If someone feels they have something missing from their skill set, completing training could help them to see just how much they already know,  boost their confidence, and help to eradicate those feelings of deception and inadequacy.

Someone to look up to

Ensure diversity runs through your organisation. The people in power must represent the whole community. If a team member with impostor syndrome can see someone like them in a high-ranking position, their own career trajectory may feel less impossible or improbable, and hopefully they will realise they have every right to be where they are, or to aim higher. You should also look into mentoring options, too, to offer support, encouragement and more to your team.

At Druthers, it’s our mission and our passion to empower organisations to find the best person to make an impact on their work, from a diverse shortlist of remarkable talent. Get in touch with us to find out how your business can make a positive change to your hiring and retention processes.