What Is Imposter Syndrome at work? How to identify and combat it

Work is a part of life. Like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, survival today depends on going out and getting food if we want to eat. Survival these days doesn’t depend as much on running fast and dragging game back home (unless you count bringing in all the groceries in one trip), but it still requires effort.

Communities are where cooperation and specialization allow each person to do their own thing and share their skills for everyone’s benefit. For example, electricians can enjoy a glass of milk without raising their own cows. Auto mechanics can enjoy classical music without having to conduct an orchestra. Everyone gives something and gets something in return, at least in a perfect world.

But what about people who don’t contribute? Is it fair that they benefit from others’ work without doing any themselves?

If you felt awkward about that last question, you may have some understanding of what imposter syndrome feels like. People who experience imposter syndrome worry that they’re not bringing anything valuable to the workplace, regardless of whether or not they actually do. They feel frustrated and stressed out, and their insecurities may lead them to quit their job altogether.

In this blog, we’re talking about why people experience imposter syndrome and how to get over it.

Difficult People D

Businesses are as different as people

People are what keep businesses running. While some people manage more responsibility than others, every employee plays a role in a company’s success by executing their duties effectively.

Companies are tasked with delegating job duties so every employee has something to do, but how the employee will do it varies from person to person. Experience and best practices can have a big impact on effectiveness, but employers are ultimately the ones responsible for finding the right person for the job.

With imposter syndrome, people feel that their work just isn’t cutting it. They worry that they’re letting the team down through incompetence, inadequacy, or because their personality is a bad fit. For some, the negative self-talk of imposter syndrome leads to workaholic behaviors, such as working outside normal business hours or never taking a vacation.

The thing to remember about imposter syndrome is that it’s not based in reality. There are tons of terrible employees who never feel guilty for poor performance, even when they have a noticeably bad impact on their team.

The business world doesn’t exactly discourage imposter syndrome, either. Companies like Tesla and Microsoft rank their employees to see who’s the most productive, throwing the concept of a work-life balance completely out the window.

What causes imposter syndrome?

Late basketball extraordinaire Kobe Bryant was reportedly so caught up in imposter syndrome that he invented an alter ego to deal with the stress. How could such a high achiever feel like an underperformer?

This is the nature of mental distortions. These negative thoughts and feelings of self-doubt can turn normal challenges into insurmountable, humiliating obstacles. Everyone is watching you, imposter syndrome says, and we’re all very disappointed.

The low self-esteem of imposter syndrome originates from a variety of different fears, depending on a person’s history. Some people develop compulsions from hostile childhoods while others simply overwork themselves from lacking healthy boundaries.

Here are some possible causes of imposter feelings:

  • Perfectionism. Setting unrealistic standards and worrying that anything less will be seen as unacceptable by others

  • Overachievement. Even when people surpass expectations, they are hesitant to give themselves credit for their success and end up attributing it to luck or other external factors

  • Comparison. Constantly looking to others as a standard of performance leads to feelings of inadequacy and a sense of being an imposter

  • Cultural expectations. Fears that your best efforts aren’t meeting the expectations of others can contribute to impostor feelings

  • Lack of positive feedback. When managers don’t let their employees know they’re doing a good enough job, these employees take it to mean they are underperforming

  • Childhood experiences. Overly critical parents or highly competitive family environments can create lifelong feelings of having to give 110 percent at every moment, with no time for rest or regular amounts of effort

  • Underrepresentation. Being in a minority group or facing discrimination in a particular field can contribute to feelings of not belonging and being an imposter, despite any success that person achieves

Most people who suffer from imposter syndrome have multiple, interconnected reasons for feeling this lack of self-confidence. Addressing them takes self-reflection, support from others, and hard work to reframe those thought patterns.

Types of imposter syndrome

Employees who feel they don’t measure up are more likely to suffer burnout and mental breakdowns, making it in the best interests of managers to periodically check in on their well-being. Yes, it takes a little extra effort and may require some tough conversations—just consider it part of your company’s retention strategy.

So how can managers spot the signs of imposter syndrome in their employees?

Here are a few things to look for:

  • Setting super high standards of performance, even on their first try at a new job.

  • Being dissatisfied with anything less than perfection.

  • Writing success off as due to luck, timing, or somebody else’s help.

  • Intense fear of mistakes or failed expectations, even when the risk of failure is low.

  • Avoiding recognition and downplaying their contributions to the team, worrying that others are judging their phoniness.

  • Frequent comparisons to colleagues and openly feeling inferior to others’ accomplishments.

  • Feeling uncomfortable or deflecting praise.

  • Frequent self-doubt about abilities, qualifications, or the legitimacy of their role as a contributor to the company.

  • Working more hours or on more tasks than necessary to compensate for inadequacies.

  • Avoiding new opportunities and challenges out of fear of failure.

  • Anxiety about performance evaluations.

  • Procrastinating tasks or projects.

  • Difficulty saying “no” to responsibilities, even when overwhelmed.

It’s normal to feel challenged and frustrated at work sometimes. We’ve all been there, but imposter syndrome has a way of never letting up, even when a job is finished and we’re perceived as successful people.

This is why it’s a good idea for managers to check in on employees every now and then. Find out how they feel about their job and ask lightly probing questions about what they need to be successful.

Dealing with imposter syndrome

Establishing realistic expectations

People dealing with imposter syndrome benefit from having reasonable people around them. Managers and coworkers can help ease stress by laying out clear expectations for what quality work looks like, and when work is done, a little pat on the back can also offer encouragement.

Symptoms of imposter syndrome have a hard time existing in company cultures that value people’s contributions. Where effort is recognized and rewarded, it’s easier to feel like an equal member of a team rather than a failed perfectionist. HR departments should take stock of the ways their companies recognize work and bring attention to it.

Meeting regularly

Another tool for managers of these employees is regular in-person meetings. There should be a chance for struggling team members to feel heard and express how they’re feeling about their job in settings other than performance evaluations.

Just talk. Confirmation can help people feel so much better, and it only takes a few minutes to drive home the point that their work is good enough.

It’s also a good idea to bring teams together as a whole to let everyone share their feelings and build community. After all, these are the people whose work depends on the productivity of each other—why not give them as many chances to connect as possible?

Regular stand-ups can also provide chances to build community, but however you choose to do it, make sure it happens on a predictable basis so as not to surprise anyone.

Encouraging mental health in the workplace

It wasn’t so long ago that mental health was considered a luxury for the emotionally weak. How times have changed. Today, mental health initiatives are (thankfully) a no-brainer, and workplaces that encourage stressed people to take time off work are the norm.

Employees need to know that taking a day off won’t leave the rest of the team hanging when they can’t think straight. So far, these policies have proven to be a success and are rarely abused, if ever.

Wellness programs also help people with imposter syndrome by letting them blow off some steam here and there. Perks like gym memberships, for example, can provide a constructive outlet and even help build healthy habits outside of work.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

Sometimes, you just need a place to talk about your problems. Therapy is that place, and many wellness programs offer a few free sessions with a licensed professional to clear up some head space.

Investing in the mental health of employees is an investment that pays long-term dividends. Not only are people able to get more work done, but they’re also able to spread a little more cheer around the office.

On the other hand, workers who feel their employers aren’t concerned with their well-being may become more sensitive to feelings that they need to overachieve in order to keep their job.

Therapy helps to treat imposter syndrome by having an unbiased third party explain how no one is as concerned with someone’s work quality as much as they are. Sometimes, this is all it takes to turn a frustrated worker into a more comfortable employee.

Emphasizing the mental health of your employees will also create a modernized company culture that people will want to join.

Rewarding good work

There’s truly nothing like validation and positive reinforcement to bring someone out of a slump. That’s why it recognizing employees should be a regular part of every company’s calendar. By finding ways to celebrate and reward the efforts of all your employees, you’ll help to create an environment where people feel comfortable being themselves.

Some companies fear that building too much rapport and casual friendship at work can lead to more distractions, but there’s simply no evidence to support this claim. The fact is people who feel valued by their employer are more interested in giving back, while employees who are taken for granted have less incentive to care.

Consider a monthly meeting for departments to bring teams together and give a shout-out to those who could use a little appreciation.

Everyone is different

Perhaps the biggest driver of the imposter phenomenon is the belief that there’s some standard all employees can uphold. This isn’t true.

It’s up to companies to maximize the skills and abilities of the people they hire. They’re also responsible for developing the competencies they rely on. While it’s true that some people are bad at their jobs, they are the exception—not the rule.

There is a palpable conflict between employers and employees in today’s job market. As inflation goes up, retention goes down, leading to lots of worry about being the perfect employee and keeping one’s job.

Employers should see this as an opportunity to set themselves apart. As other companies crack down on their workforces and lay people off, better employers are doubling down on their commitment to their teams. That means valuing the unique skills of the individuals they hire and developing more competencies along the way.

At their best, companies maximize the available skills of the employees they already have, rather than put pressure on people to be something they’re not. This is the best way to combat imposter syndrome.