Living with imposter syndrome – personal and organisational considerations

Living with imposter syndrome – personal and organisational considerations

Caitlin Grieves 3rd March 2022

How have they not realised it yet? Am I really cut out for this? I know I wanted a new challenge, but why did I think I was good enough to take this step up? Any minute now, someone is going to see it and validate all the doubts I have about myself and my work.

These have been some of my less than helpful internal monologues over the past eight weeks in my new role with Roffey Park. Despite the fact that highly intelligent and dedicated people put me through a thorough interview process…despite the fact that I have always overperformed in past roles…despite the fact that no one has found me out in these first couple of months…I, like so many others, have nevertheless had the distinct displeasure of feeling like an imposter at work.

With this potent cocktail of tension and worry swirling through my head, I found myself wondering…wow, wouldn’t this make a fantastic blog article? …Ok, maybe not… but I do see real value in sharing my experience and reflecting on different approaches to handling the unfortunately common “imposter syndrome” (or imposter “phenomenon”, as I prefer) at work. 

What you think is not your reality 

When you are in the midst of feeling like a fraud who lucked into their role but maybe doesn’t deserve it, you aren’t too concerned about why you feel that way. The more refined questions, of how your personal background or systemic issues of culture and societal norms might impact you, aren’t really on your radar. You’re far more likely to be focused on whether you will prove yourself right as a fake, and how to avoid being “caught”.  

A major pitfall of this approach is that you start believing your own story and acting from false assumptions. You might decide the only course of action is to start overworking towards the aim of getting things “perfect” – where no one could possibly doubt you. Unfortunately, perfect rarely exists and this is more likely to see you achieve burnout than perfection. On the other extreme, you might lean into deep procrastination, pushing off the work you find most threatening, or even talking yourself into leaving your job because you don’t believe you’re cut out for it. 

Strategies to cope

Much psychological research has identified the importance of recognising that our thoughts are not facts. Our thoughts are just that – ideas in our own minds, warped massively by subjective perception and, in the case of imposter phenomenon, flooded and distorted by feelings of fear and anxiety.  

So, what have I been doing to challenge my own imposter thoughts? What might help you to do the same? The top four approaches I’ve been taking these past few months are discussed below: 

Question to stop the cycle

A question used regularly in therapy to challenge negative self-talk is “Who told you that?”. I personally came across this question from a viral tweet and it stuck. Often, you won’t have an answer to this for the thoughts that accompany imposter phenomenon. Who told me that I wasn’t good enough for this role and that I’m not what they expected when they hired me? If the answer is “no one”, then it’s time to toss this thought aside – it has no weight or basis in reality, so it doesn’t deserve precious time or attention from you. 

Review the evidence  

Imposter phenomenon, even from the roots of its research by Clance and Imes, seems to affect high-achieving people more frequently. As someone experiencing imposter phenomenon then, one silver lining is it means you are probably going to have a range of past achievements to review as evidence of your ability to do good work and handle challenging new environments. Revisiting your own track record of success can help ground you back in the realities of your own ability.  

For me, I also found reflecting on how I achieved in the past to be incredibly useful. The principles I apply to my work can translate even more readily across new situations than a particular scenario of success itself.  

Share concerns, ask for support

So much of the negative feelings we experience when in this space are due to the stories we tell ourselves about how others perceive us. While it can be frightening to confront those fears directly, it can often have the biggest impact on rejecting false internal narratives.  

Speaking to a trusted colleague, your manager or someone else with insight on your performance about the areas where you want to see improvement can help you recalibrate your own views. If you can pair this with asking for support to perform at your best, you may find that a bit of help is enough to help you adjust to an overwhelming new environment and feel more comfortable, or that the people around you already feel you’re doing great work. 

Apply empathy, poor fit ≠ failure   

Applying some self-empathy and grace can go a long way in relieving the pressure that accompanies imposter phenomenon. Hopefully the techniques above, as well as time help ease the intensity of imposter feelings. However, there will be occasions where the fit is just not right – maybe this was a bigger step than you anticipated, maybe the organisation’s values and ways of working really don’t align with your own, or maybe the job hasn’t become what you or your organisation expected.  

It’s important to remember that stepping away in these circumstances is not failing. It is making a positive decision for you and your organisation, and you’re not the only one who has made this decision. A 2018 study found that 30% of American job seekers left their new jobs within the first 90 days – fit matters.  

It can be hard to internalise this positive spin, though, so imagine you are speaking to a friend who has experienced everything you have…the negative feelings they have, the work they have done to overcome those challenges and the ways you might encourage them to look for something new, more fulfilling and a better match for their future.  

When it’s not about you

We also need to recognise the times when imposter feelings aren’t coming from within us at all, but are instead being projected by the culture that surrounds us. Jodi-Ann Burey and Ruchika Tulshayan’s bold article last year highlighted this issue well. A staggering majority of research in the area of imposter phenomenon has focused on the individual experiencing it and the ways they can change and adapt. Even the more common label of imposter “syndrome” portrays this as a medical condition that might be healed with the right personal treatment. While it is worthwhile to focus attention on helping people cope with negative emotions and experiences, Burey and Tulshayan quite rightly call out the dearth of research into how cultural systems in organisations may impact, or indeed help create imposter phenomenon.

This is an important shift to acknowledge and consider. Workplace culture has always played an important and explicit role in shaping employee experience. It is not hard to imagine the ways it might influence the common employee experience of imposter phenomenon, especially for groups that have been traditionally excluded or underrepresented in workplaces. So, the focus, as they highlight in a follow-up article, needs to be “fixing the places where women work instead of fixing women at work”.  

If organisations are looking at fixing their places of work, they need to deeply consider how they are addressing systemic causes of imposter phenomenon and pervasive self-doubt amongst their employees. Training and development programmes, psychometrics and coaching will all help people work through this experience, but not so much as addressing more baseline workplace conditions. This means considering issues of psychological safety and trust within teams, actively working to develop and enhance the workplace as an inclusive space and embedding accountability for these cultural elements at both leadership and managerial levels. 

What can be done

Is there strong psychological safety established across the organisation and within teams? A culture of trust and safety that allows people to share, take risks and make mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution is key to helping those feeling overwhelmed open up about their thoughts and ask for help – knowing it is likely to be welcomed and supported.   

Is there an active effort being made to create inclusive spaces at work? Imposter phenomenon is experienced by a huge range of people across a number of demographics, and yet it is easier for individuals from minority or underrepresented backgrounds to feel out of place, or like they don’t belong, when the environments they enter into reflect that back to them. Many corporate workplaces and workplace norms in the west have evolved from white patriarchal culture and these origins often still permeate their environments today – observable in everything from representation in leadership to expected patterns of interpersonal behaviour. It is crucial that organisations regularly challenge their ways of working and internal practices and continue to question whether they are making enough change at the systemic versus individual level.

Lastly, what sort of accountability is being put in place to ensure a positive, safe and inclusive culture is being put into practice? Think about what sort of data can be used to help measure progress or implementation. Remember, too, that managers are the key to employee experience. A manager failing to foster the sort of environment the organisation needs should be challenged and then supported, in the same way, a manager failing to meet any operational objective would be.