Workplace impostor syndrome may seem negative, but some research suggests it may be somewhat favorable for business.
Here's what you need to know about if workplace impostor syndrome is helping your company:
- Business leaders who do not see deficits in performance from staff members, impostor syndrome may be holding otherwise capable staff members from performing at higher levels
- Developing skills is important, but skill refreshment may be helpful for some staff members who may suffer from impostor thoughts.
- Impostor syndrome may be holding otherwise capable staff members from performing at higher levels.
Fake it ‘til you make it has taken on new meaning. The old adage that applied to work and personal relationships has grown into a phenomenon now called ‘workplace impostor syndrome.’ At work, the term refers to employees who don’t believe they have the skills or competencies to perform their work but continue to work nevertheless.
Workplace impostor syndrome may seem negative, but some research suggests it may be somewhat favorable for business. Employees who harbor deep insecurities about their capabilities may be experiencing workplace impostor syndrome. They may believe they’ve achieved their place in an organization due to luck or fraud rather than competency. They may lack the confidence to do more than what’s minimally required for fear they may be exposed.
The cycle could lead to:
- Reduced performance
- Even turnover
Leaders may be able to break the cycle of impostor syndrome by recognizing it in their employees and finding ways to help staff build their confidence.
How common is workplace impostor syndrome?
A study from Indeed UK found 58% of employees suffer from impostor syndrome at some point in their careers. Their survey found women (21%) are almost twice as likely as men (12%) to feel they are frequently or always a fraud at work. The majority of employees, 94%, haven’t discussed their feelings at work:
- 61% report they fear they’ll be seen as less competent
- 52% would be embarrassed
- 33% are concerned they would not be taken seriously
The fallout for those experiencing these thoughts is that more than half don’t feel supported at work. Their fears can translate into productivity and performance losses. Almost two-thirds say the feelings result in procrastination; 57% work longer hours to compensate, which can result in burnout and turnover. Lost productivity is reported by 41%, while 39% avoid applying for an internal promotion.
For business leaders who do not see deficits in performance from staff members, impostor syndrome may be holding otherwise capable staff members from performing at higher levels. They may also see qualified candidates who management believes are ready for promotion stagnate in their current role. A final result could be turnover.
Most workers build confidence and knowledge when tasked with a new duty or assignment.
Impostor syndrome versus impostor thoughts
Most workers occasionally doubt their skills. They build confidence and knowledge when tasked with a new duty or assignment. Some staff members still doubt their abilities even though their competence level is satisfactory. This doubt may apply to a specific task or all of their work. When skepticism is more prevalent, they may be experiencing workplace impostor syndrome.
While the word ‘syndrome’ suggests something negative, an MIT Sloan assistant professor, Basima Tewfik, prefers using ‘impostor thoughts’ — which implies the feeling may not be permanent. As employees grow their skills, they may overcome these thoughts, and businesses can help them with training and support.
In some ways, impostor thoughts help
Tewfik’s research into the phenomenon suggests these thoughts may positively impact workers and businesses. At work, she found many people who harbor impostor thoughts compensate for what they believe are their shortcomings with strong social skills and the ability to work well in teams. These staff members develop their interpersonal skills to establish themselves within an organization. They may be seen as:
- Good listeners
- Team players
- Colleagues who are easy to work with
Whatever drives them, strong interpersonal skills are valuable to a business. This soft skill can make work relationships more productive and increase engagement. Office friendships are often a key component of employee retention. When staff members find the workplace pleasant, they’re less likely to move on to greener pastures. The ‘impostors’ on staff may be a key to reducing turnover and building morale within the company.
Recognizing staff members with impostor thoughts
The MIT research suggests employees with impostor thoughts may overcompensate with verbal and non-verbal cues. Look for staff members who are active listeners and respond with ‘I understand’ when something is explained to them. They may take a receptive, considerate, physical manner with others, or they may maintain good eye contact and open gestures during conversations. While these may not be a direct indicator of impostor thoughts, they may suggest a worker is less-than-confident in their skill set.
Some research suggests perfectionists may suffer from impostor syndrome. Their need for everything to be precisely right may reveal insecurities about performance.
Another cue may be employees who consistently show up early and stay late. If they’re not overworked, they may be overthinking the work they perform. Procrastination may be another signal of an underconfident staffer who may need support. Some research suggests perfectionists may suffer from impostor syndrome. Their need for everything to be precisely right may reveal insecurities about performance.
Supporting staff members with impostor thoughts
While directly asking a worker if they feel they’re a fraud may not be a wise option, leaders may be able to employ confidence-boosting methods to help staff members they suspect have problems. Approach staffers with a positive vibe to help them shed their fears and appreciate their abilities.
Highlighting accomplishments and consistent positive reinforcement may be central to helping employees develop their self-assurance.
Be a cheerleader
Employee recognition builds engagement and productivity for all staff members. Highlighting accomplishments and consistent positive reinforcement may be central to helping employees develop their self-assurance. Once their confidence level meets their competency level, the thoughts may go away. For those with impostor thoughts, it may help to develop self-worth.
Make learning a priority
Another option is training and development. A culture of continuous learning should be baked into every organization’s mission. Staff members become more valuable to the business when they grow their skill sets. Developing skills is important, but skill refreshment may be helpful for some staff members who may suffer from impostor thoughts.
Fill the gaps
Training gaps exist in every organization and for almost every team member. A quick refresher course is beneficial for everyone. Whatever the course, invite all staff members to join, even if they consider themselves proficient. Training offered should include rather than exclude staff members.
- Find the confidence that they’re performing a task correctly
- Find an alternative way that might be more efficient
- Learn something new overall
When all staff is encouraged to join, underconfident employees may feel less stigma about doing so.
Create a feedback funnel
Making a fuss over every piece of work produced may not be reasonable for managers. Still, you can let employees self-evaluate as often as they need to build their confidence. Set up systems that allow workers to check their goals and performance. An open-format feedback system can help employees check in with their manager whenever necessary to check progress individually and within the organization.
Don’t wait until next year
More frequent check-ins may be another option to boost employee confidence. The annual performance review may be too little, too late for most employees. It may be a worthless effort for those whose self-esteem needs increasing. Make it a point to check in with staff members more frequently, answer questions, and offer encouragement. The few minutes invested weekly or bi-weekly could make a big difference in their confidence level.
When staff members are competent, business runs smoothly. When team members are confident in their competence, they’re better able to grow the organization and innovate.
The old ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ saying hasn’t been around in so long because no one feels insecure about their skills. It happens to everyone. If you can support your staff members, you can make sure they ‘make it’ every time.