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How to Recognize and Support Employees With Impostor Syndrome

ByChris Lennon,
business.com writer
|
Jan 03, 2019
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HR reps and business owners can build a culture that productively handles self-doubt.

Self-doubt is incredibly common in the workplace. Studies suggest 70 percent of people experience impostor syndrome, a psychological pattern in which they doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a fraud at some time in their career.

No one – regardless of their age, industry or gender – is immune to these feelings. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Maya Angelou and Academy Award winner Tom Hanks have all spoken about feeling like frauds. Impostor syndrome can strike at all levels of an organization, from employees who are new on the job to those who are up for a promotion or taking on a new project. If these feelings linger, they can lead to destructive working habits.

HR has an important role to play in recognizing and addressing impostor syndrome in the workplace. 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.

Identifying impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome has often been discussed as a phenomenon that mostly affects women. On the contrary, research suggests men are more likely to suffer from these feelings of self-doubt – they're just too ashamed to talk about it.

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 initiative can be a strong indicator of low confidence or low self-esteem. Employees may demonstrate a lack of self-confidence by turning down promotions, new assignments or other tasks because they're "not ready yet," or being slow to highlight their accomplishments and contributions.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a giant red flag. While you may hear people lightheartedly call themselves perfectionists now and then, look out for those who actually suffer from perfectionism. True perfectionists set unhealthy and unrealistically high goals for themselves and then heavily criticize themselves when they don't meet those goals. The fear of failure can cause severe anxiety or compulsive behavior. They are constantly afraid they won't measure up to an unachievable concept of "perfect" 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. An employee who works 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/or 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 help 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

It's important for HR professionals or business owners 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 have any concern that this phenomenon could develop among your workforce, it's time to take action on a companywide scale.

HR's role in helping employees overcome 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 large role in supporting and encouraging employees, yet few are well equipped to tackle impostor syndrome among their team members – especially when these team members reveal their inner critic.

As Tara Mohr describes in the Harvard Business Review, when confronted by an employee's self-doubt, most managers will try to encourage them by saying things like, "I know you can do it. I wouldn't have given you this task if I didn't think you could."

This approach is called arguing with the inner critic. People with impostor syndrome have an inner critic telling them they are not good enough, that they're frauds, that they're going to be revealed as fakes. It doesn't work to argue with this inner critic – in fact, it can even backfire. Employees suffering from impostor syndrome might feel more stressed if they think their fraudulence is being overlooked by their managers.

Managers need to engage with the 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. This can help them differentiate between what is realistic 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. 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 feeling confident all the time.

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 its tracks. This will help your employees do their best and ensure that your organization is a positive and productive place to work.  

Chris Lennon
Chris Lennon
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Chris Lennon is Vice President of Product Management at BirdDogHR. Chris is an active participant in the talent management community bringing over 18 years of experience to BirdDogHR. He has presented at numerous industry events and has been quoted as an industry expert in leading publications like SHRM, CEOWorld Magazine, TLNT, HR Daily Advisor, and more.
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