Ever feel like a fraud at work? If so, you’re not alone. It’s called imposter syndrome, and it’s a real condition. But with the right tools, it can actually be used to fuel your success.
When it comes to your career, have you ever felt like you’re not good enough, or unqualified to successfully complete your roles and responsibilities (even if you have a track record of success)? If you have, you could be suffering from Impostor Syndrome.
Merriam-Webster defines impostor syndrome as “a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one's abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one's ongoing success.” If you’ve ever experienced any of the many symptoms of impostor syndrome, you’re not alone. In fact, 25-30% of high achievers report having experienced this condition, and 70% of adults could potentially experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lifetimes.
Impostor syndrome doesn’t only affect “regular” people, either. The list of famous and arguably highly successful and inspiring people who have dealt with it (and still occasionally deal with it) in some form can be surprising: David Bowie, Sheryl Sandberg, Serena Williams, Tina Fey, Howard Schultz, Maya Angelou, Lady Gaga, Arianna Huffington, Natalie Portman, Tom Hanks, Sonia Sotomayor, and Emma Watson. If you’ve ever felt impostor syndrome, you’re a member of a very prestigious club.
Symptoms and Effects of Impostor Syndrome
Since impostor syndrome can affect anyone—both leaders and employees, it’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms in both yourself and in those on your team. You can’t address and change what you don’t acknowledge, and you can’t help team members reverse the often-damaging effects of impostor syndrome if you’re not equipped to recognize the sometimes subtle symptoms. Impostor syndrome can look like any of the following:
What are the potential effects of impostor syndrome? According to Dr. Audrey Ervin, PhD., impostor syndrome “can negatively impact careers because people may over produce to prove that they are capable. This can lead to burnout and ultimately be counterproductive. People may also miss opportunities because they do not feel worthy or capable, despite being quite competent.” When leaders or employees suffer from impostor syndrome, some of the best-qualified and highest-quality people in an organization can keep themselves from reaching their potential, negatively affecting themselves and the organization.
The Five Types of Impostor Syndrome
Impostor syndrome isn’t a one-size-fits-all condition. It’s actually multi-faceted, falling into five different types, and it’s not uncommon to fall into more than one type in some way. Once each type is understood, any impostor can be better equipped to deal with this syndrome.
The Perfectionist: Perfectionism as a type of impostor syndrome shouldn’t be a surprise as one of the signs of impostor syndrome is feeling like you can’t do things well enough, you don’t measure up, and/or you’re not perfect. Micromanaging, difficulty delegating, questioning every step along a process, and needing to be in control are signs that you’re a perfectionist on the impostor syndrome spectrum.
The Expert: Those who fall under the expert type of impostor syndrome feel like they should know everything, and when they don’t, they feel unqualified and inexperienced for the tasks and roles they’re assigned to accomplish. Experts often feel “stuck” progress-wise due to these feelings, leading to the desire to constantly be seeking additional training and knowledge and feelings of fear that keep them from trying for new roles and responsibilities due to feeling unqualified.
The Soloist: The soloist feels like they should be able to do everything on their own—no assistance needed, as asking for help is seen as a failure. If they can’t accomplish tasks and responsibilities alone by using their own expertise and knowledge, they feel like a phony—an impostor.
The Natural Genius: If you don’t feel like you’re naturally qualified for a task or role, then you’re this type of impostor. Natural geniuses often feel like something should be completed on the first try or that a task should take a certain amount of time (usually an unrealistic expectation), and when this doesn’t happen, impostor syndrome comes on strong. Natural geniuses often set their internal bar too high based on past experiences when something came easily without much effort. As with the soloist, natural geniuses often like to do things alone, because if you have to ask for help, you must be unqualified, right?
The Superwoman/Superman: A superperson basically feels like they need to exhibit near superpower abilities to successfully accomplish their tasks and roles. They often work the hardest, put in the most hours, feel stressed when not producing, lack self-care, and feel like they need to continually be pushing harder to “earn” what they’ve been given career-wise. They feel like a fraud, so they try to compensate by doing more and more. And more. Workaholics are often this type of impostor.
8 Tools for Dealing with Impostor Syndrome
While impostor syndrome can feel discouraging and even somewhat debilitating, when you’re experiencing any aspect of this condition, there are some things you can do to change from feeling like a phony to a legitimate and deserving contributor. While these tools can be helpful for you as a manager, it’s important to also add them to your leadership toolbox so you can use them to help any team members who are dealing with any type of impostor syndrome. The odds are that they will or already are experiencing some form of this condition, so preparation and knowledge are essential in your desire to help your team.
Change your perspective on failure. It’s nearly impossible to experience any type of success without also experiencing some form of failure. Thomas Edison said this about his experience of creating the light bulb, which shines light on how crucial our failures can be to our success: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Instead of viewing failures as a sign of a lack of expertise and ability, view them as a chance to learn and grow, and then use any newly-found knowledge for future tasks and responsibilities.
The belief that you can continually develop new abilities is part of having a Growth Mindset. Learn about Growth and Fixed Mindsets here.
Celebrate any wins. No matter how small they might be, it’s important to acknowledge any successes you achieve and then recognize what caused those successes. Resist the temptation to fall back on the impostor syndrome thinking that success came from luck or from something you didn’t do.
Recognize your talents and skills. This requires being honest and vulnerable with yourself and realizing that even though your talents and skills might not be at the expertise level—yet, they are still important and allow you to contribute to your own and your team’s success. Go one step farther and create opportunities to share with and teach your talents and skills to others. This can go a long way to reversing those fraudulent feelings.
Make a list of your achievements. You’ve probably accomplished more than you remember or give yourself credit for, so make and keep a list of anything and everything you’ve ever accomplished—both big and small, and then refer to that list when those impostor syndrome feelings surface.
Remind yourself that you’re qualified. While this can be difficult, especially when given a new task or role, remember that if you weren't qualified, you wouldn't be given this new opportunity. Someone believes you’re qualified, so lean into that belief until you believe it yourself.
Recognize how impostor syndrome affects you. Which symptoms do you feel most often? Once you can recognize which circumstances fuel your impostor syndrome, you’ll be better able to proactively manage it—even before it hits full force.
Get support. When you’re feeling any symptoms of impostor syndrome, speak with a trusted peer or leader about what you’re experiencing and then lean on their expertise and their belief in you. For your team members, make the time to create a trusting and open relationship where you can discuss any symptoms you’re seeing in them with them, then work with them to help eliminate any imposter syndrome-like tendencies.
Embrace it! While this tip might sound counterintuitive, it can actually work to deescalate the symptoms of impostor syndrome and to simply embrace it for what it is. Adam Grant explains this tool best: "Impostor syndrome isn't a disease. It's a normal response to internalizing impossibly high standards. Doubting yourself doesn't mean you're going to fail. It usually means you're facing a new challenge and you're going to learn. Feeling uncertainty is a precursor to growth."
Impostor syndrome is real. The negative effects it can have on leaders, employees, and organizations is real. However, with the right tools, paired with patience and the necessary mindset changes, this negative condition can be used as a fuel for continual improvement and success for leaders, team members, and organizations, as a whole.