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How to Recognize and Support Employees With Impostor Syndrome

Julie Thompson
Julie Thompson
business.com Contributing Writer
Updated Nov 08, 2022

HR reps and business owners can build a culture that productively handles self-doubt.

We’ve all felt that nagging feeling that we are professionally inadequate. It’s completely normal to feel these emotions after starting a new job, accepting a promotion or, even, if we sense we are in the minority. Unfortunately for some, these moments can grow into impostor syndrome.

It’s important to frequently look for and take action when impostor syndrome is a part of workplace culture. Failure to acknowledge it can cause unnecessary stress, poor communication and a lack of company diversity.

Read on to learn more about impostor syndrome and how you can work to reduce this feeling among your employees so your entire organization can thrive.

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome, the concept of which was introduced by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, is a lack of confidence in your job performance. You may feel you don’t deserve your job or were given the job by mistake.

You can have impostor syndrome feelings even if you exceed expectations and are a respected team member. There are four main symptoms of impostor syndrome:

  1. The notion that you can’t make mistakes and remain a valued team member
  2. Putting in long hours or taking on additional projects just to feel like a part of the team
  3. Feeling burnout that diminishes your mental health
  4. Isolating yourself from co-workers so they don’t find out you are an impostor

With less than 5% of employers acknowledging impostor syndrome in the workplace, according to a recent study by InnovateMR, learning to manage and support employees is imperative. 

Did you know?Did you know? According to the InnovateMR study, 53% of female professionals ages 25 to 34 are currently experiencing impostor syndrome.

How to recognize impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome has often been discussed as a phenomenon that primarily affects women. But, the InnovateMR study found that 65% of all professionals, male and female, suffer from the condition. 

Forget about gender when considering who may have impostor syndrome at your organization. Instead, be on the lookout for the following ways impostor syndrome can manifest among your employees.

Reluctance to seize opportunities

Being reluctant to take the initiative can be a strong indicator of low confidence or low self-esteem. For example, employees may lack self-confidence by turning down promotions, new assignments or other tasks because they’re “not ready yet.” They might also be slow to highlight their accomplishments and contributions.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a giant red flag. When you hear people lightheartedly call themselves perfectionists, pay attention to see if they really embrace the behavior. True perfectionists set unhealthy and unrealistically high goals and then heavily criticize themselves when they don’t meet them. The fear of failure can cause severe anxiety or compulsive behavior. They are constantly afraid they won’t measure up to an unachievable ideal and will be exposed as frauds.

These are some signs of perfectionism in employees:

  • Trouble delegating because they need to do tasks themselves to ensure they’re done perfectly
  • Unrealistic standards for themselves and others
  • Procrastination (this may seem counterintuitive, but perfectionists fear failure so much that they can become immobilized and struggle to start anything at all)

Workaholism

At first glance, an employee who often arrives early or stays late can seem like a great asset to the company, but be wary of the potential motivations behind excessive work. Employees who work all the time may be motivated by the belief that they are not skilled enough and need to work harder to measure up to their colleagues.

An employee whose impostor syndrome manifests as workaholism may:

  • Consistently be the first in and the last to leave the office, working hours beyond what the job requires
  • Have trouble relaxing when they are not working
  • Skip workplace social events to keep working

Individualism

Employees who don’t accept help from others may feel they need to go it alone to prove their worth. They may believe asking for help will reveal them as impostors who are not up to the task.

These are some signs of impostor syndrome-motivated individualism:

  • Consistently completing tasks without the help of others, even if it was offered or the project warranted extra hands
  • Trouble delegating or working on teams
  • Framing requests for help as requirements of the projects rather than as support that would benefit them as a person

HR professionals or business owners need to understand the various signs of impostor syndrome. Recognizing it is the first step toward creating a workplace that helps employees overcome their self-doubts. Once you’ve identified any employees suffering from this syndrome or are concerned that this phenomenon could develop among your workforce, it’s time to take action on a companywide scale.

TipTip: Help prevent impostor syndrome by implementing an open-door policy. You can encourage communication and decrease impostor syndrome symptoms by allowing your employees to have one-on-one access to their employer or manager.

How to support and manage employees with impostor syndrome 

Defeating impostor syndrome in the workplace is not a one-person or one-department job. Here’s how you can involve everyone at your company to ensure more effective results.

1. Provide managers with relevant training.

Managers should play a prominent role in supporting and encouraging employees. Yet few are well equipped to tackle impostor syndrome among their team members.

People with impostor syndrome have an inner critic telling them they are not good enough, that they’re frauds and that they will be revealed as fakes. It doesn’t work to argue with this inner critic. It can even backfire. Employees suffering from impostor syndrome might feel more stressed if they think their managers overlook their fraudulence.

Managers need to engage with employees who experience self-doubt instead. Educate managers at your organization on the various signs of impostor syndrome, and coach them to let their employees know that fears and self-doubt are a natural part of work life. An employee’s goal should not be to strive for supreme self-confidence, but rather better management of self-doubt. Managing these feelings can help them differentiate between what is real and what is the all-or-nothing thinking of an inner critic.

2. Build open relationships from the beginning.

Your employees need to have trusted relationships so they can discuss topics like self-doubt. Mentoring and social activities can help employees feel more comfortable with opening up to other team members about how they’re coping with their work.

As a representative of the HR department, you should go beyond interviews. Consider adding mentoring to your onboarding process to help develop relationships between employees from day one. Let them know that HR’s door is always open if they need to talk about anything, including impostor syndrome. 

3. Play to your employees’ strengths.

Impostor syndrome can make an employee feel like they have inadequate job skills and are fooling their co-workers. In most cases, this thinking is false. 

However, impostor syndrome should also create a red flag for the employer. If an employee’s job description doesn’t align with their skills, you, as the employer, could be partially to blame for the impostor syndrome.

Playing to your employees’ strengths can boost their creativity, encourage innovation and increase engagement. Plus, your employees will gain confidence and reduce feelings of inadequacy.

4. Have honest conversations.

If employees start to exhibit signs of impostor syndrome or name the condition directly, the declaration should be taken sincerely. If you have struggled with impostor syndrome yourself, consider sharing your story, including triggers and how you overcome such feelings.

Have honest conversations about company goals and what you expect from each employee individually. If an employee feels inadequate, ask them to explain why they think that way. For example, you could find that they have misinterpreted their job requirements, the position is not a good fit for their skills or they are lacking a welcoming work environment to thrive.

There are far more diverse examples of leadership styles for men than there are for women of color. As a result, impostor syndrome can be reinforced by women of color, who generally don’t have mentors or similar industry leaders for reference. 

FYIFYI: Less than 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, according to the Women CEOs in America Report, and just five CEOs are women of color

5. Create a supportive workplace culture.

A workplace culture with severe repercussions for failure is likely to encourage perfectionism, workaholism and impostor syndrome among its employees. Take a step back and ask yourself if your company sees failure as a dead end or a learning opportunity. It’s vital to send out a clear message to your employees that mistakes happen and they don’t have to be a source of shame.

Encourage your executives, when appropriate, to share their experiences with failure and with self-doubt. Set the tone straight from the top that it’s OK to make mistakes and that being a leader is about managing self-doubt rather than constantly feeling confident.

By coaching your managers, building relationships that make employees feel safe to open up and creating a workplace culture that learns from failure, you’ll involve everyone at your company in stopping impostor syndrome. In addition, deepening the relationship will help your employees do their best and ensure that your organization is a positive and productive workplace.  

6. Listen more than you speak.

Regarding women and people of color, recognizing impostor syndrome without acknowledging workplace racism and bias can be a form of gaslighting. 

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that causes us to question reality. It is prevalent in the workplace and our personal lives. 

Listening to the marginalized and being transparent about hurdles and biases build trust. Help employees succeed by consistently leveraging your influence for promotions and equal benefits.

7. Take inclusion to the next level.

While men, especially white males, receive positive reinforcement for promotion opportunities in the workplace, this is not always the case for women of color.

With a lack of leadership that looks like them or encouragement from management to succeed past their current job, women of color will continue to struggle with impostor syndrome. Not only does impostor syndrome create doubt in the mind of a woman of color, but it can also create indifference in the mindset of her manager.

Employers and managers should be mindful of the diversity of their workplace, not just in an overall sense, but specifically diversity in leadership positions. 

If impostor syndrome is present from junior levels to upper management, businesses can use this data to call for workplace change.

To take action, companies can do the following:

  • Evaluate all employees’ work performance.
  • Provide transparency regarding pay and benefit equity regardless of race, sex, abilities, etc.
  • Participate in cultural awareness and team-building activities.
  • Offer employee reviews to help them understand key performance metrics and encourage those struggling on how to improve.

8. Give credit where credit is due.

Affirmation is just as vital in the workplace as it is in our personal relationships. But unfortunately, workers with impostor syndrome constantly feel like they are insufficient.

By acknowledging your employees as human beings, you can show them they are valued team members and not just a number. You accept them (and their skills and abilities) for who they are.

Once this relationship is established, you can give credit professionally; for example, praising employees for meeting goals, celebrating achievements and encouraging them to utilize their strengths.

Additional reporting by Chris Lennon

Image Credit: Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock
Julie Thompson
Julie Thompson
business.com Contributing Writer
Julie Thompson is a professional content writer who has worked with a diverse group of professional clients, including online agencies, tech startups and global entrepreneurs. Julie has also written articles covering current business trends, compliance, and finance.