Is imposter syndrome a problem in your workplace? A 2020 KPMG LLP study found that 75 percent of US female executives suffer from imposter syndrome at one time or another. While originally thought tooccur predominantly in women, recent research by Badaway, Gazdag, and Brouer finds that it affects men too and to some extent with more severe symptoms. Described as a set of beliefs and behaviors associated with individuals who doubt their abilities, attribute success to luck, and feel like frauds or phonies, it disproportionately affects those who are high-achievers such as PhD holders, executives, managers, etc. So, does this describe members of your workforce? If so and you’re looking for ways to empower your staff, you may want to first assess whether imposter syndrome is holding them back and wearing them down.
Signs of Imposture Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome can undermine the performance and well-being of even the smartest, highly skilled, and top-performing staff. These staff members are effective and productive. But, are they doing well?
Signs Related to Staff Behavior
While each typical imposter syndrome (IS) behavioral sign is not unique to the syndrome, the presence of several signs is a good indicator. These individuals are masters of disguise. They work hard to conceal beliefs and feelings about themselves. Thus, the signs may be subtle, masked, and rationalized. For the purposes of simplification, I’ve loosely grouped these behaviors into three categories.
- Isolation and Failure to Delegate
- Hesitation Toward Professional Advancements
Staff with IS are likely to take perfectionism to extremes, and impose high standards for themselves and their staff. Perfectionists can always find ways to improve or tweak output, whether it’s their own or that of their direct reports. They speak of the need for enhancements rather than faults in order to mask their own incompetency should that imagined inevitable error be uncovered. Typically, they aren’t intentionally deceptive, but rather, acting from an unrelenting fear that stems from a deep lack of confidence and self-worth.
Procrastination falls under perfectionism because it often results from overthinking and compulsive tweaking. As a consequence, planning bogs down and tasks or projects start dates are regularly postponed. Similarly, compulsive scrutiny on quality-control and thoroughness delays task or project completion.
Because people with IS are anxious about performance, they put in a tremendous amount of time and effort. They tend to be workaholics, regularly stay late, work on weekends, and cram before deadlines.
When the work is complete, IS-afflicted staff often deflect praise and recognition. They may find fault, remark on areas for improvement, or claim they were just lucky. In more extreme cases, they may even resort to sabotaging their work.
Isolation and Failure to Delegate
Imposter syndrome typically leads to isolation, micro-management, and failure to delegate. Managers with IS fail to delegate out of quality concerns, and in so doing they overload themselves with an unnecessary work burden. They’re not apt to ask for help either because the request would just validate their self-doubt and lack of confidence. Some fear that their direct reports will reveal their weakness and upstage them. Hence, they prefer to work alone and do the work themselves.
Hesitation Toward Professional Advancement
This subheading may seem contradictory at first. After all, we’re talking about high-achievers. However, professional advancement necessarily involves unknowns and vulnerability, and this can produce a tremendous amount of stress and/or anxiety in an individual who lacks confidence, harbors significant self-doubt and self-judgment, and feels unworthy of recognition. And, remember, their performance standards are exceptionally high.
As a result, staff with IS will often avoid and procrastinate in providing a response to a supervisor’s proposals for advancement. They may habitually put off recommended or required training. If they do accept a promotion or new more challenging responsibilities, their obsessive drive will yield payoffs. But, eventually, fissures will infiltrate their performance, their health, or their well-being. Remediation and assistance need to come long before that happens.
Because they are incredibly harsh on themselves, they dread and avoid feedback and performance reviews, both their own and those of their direct reports. Advice, guidance, and even positive feedback can act as stressors and additional performance expectation challenges.
Signs Related to Staff Well-Being
These days most workplaces are stressful or even extremely stressful. Expectations and competition can be intense. Add to that the internally generated stress of a person with imposter syndrome.
Some signs are they don’t allocate much time to self-care, exercise, physical movement, preparation of nutritious meals, connection with family and friends: all important choices to decompress from work and stress. They’re inclined to suffer from anxiety and burnout at some point. Typically IS suffers self-destruct from the inside out.
What You Can Do To Empower Your Staff Who Have Imposter Syndrome
First things first, assess if you have IS in your workforce. Check for signs and symptoms among the staff. Listen to the impressions from their staff and supervisors.
In addition, you can administer a survey to identify if there is an issue and, through the survey process, help those with IS self-identify. As part of staff care services, offer more in-depth IS information, coaching and mentoring sessions, workshops, and other resources. (For more details on how to support staff with IS, see my blog on How To Empower Your Staff Members Who Have Imposture Syndrome.)
Make sure to avoid stigmatization. And, remember these are high-achievers who significantly contribute to their employer’s mission and bottom line. An investment in their well-being will deter burnout and attrition, reap benefits for the employer.
Some articles suggest that supervisors offer more praise. However, this could backfire and exacerbate the problem. Recognition can intensify shame and the fear of being outed. Instead, encourage staff to work on the underlying beliefs and emotions first. Inner work precedes practical tips and tricks to combat undesirable behaviors.
Instead of focusing predominantly on output and performance, staff with IS should be encouraged to monitor changes in their well-being. For example, are they more inclined to take breaks, unplug in the evening, engage in self-care? The KPMG study mentioned above noted nearly 50 percent of their respondents said that having supportive managers reduced their feeling of IS. Compassion and support are important.
A lot can be said about the typical modern work environment. Most workplaces could and should humanize. This means lightening up on the competition and staff comparisons, encouragement of breaks and exercise, clear delineation of responsibilities and work processes, and creation of better lines of two-way communication.
For More Assistance To Empower Your Staff With Imposter Syndrome, See:
- Starchaser workshops staff personal development goals, professional commitment, and wellness. In particular,
- Releasing Limiting Beliefs to Improve Staff Performance,
- Stress Resilience in the Workplace,
- Tap Into Inner Wisdom To Access Full Intelligence
- Coaching in workplace options.
- Related Starchaser mind-body-spirit blog posts using this “empowering staff” category link, or use the blog dropdown in the main navigation menu.
- Or, Contact Me