Komal worked at a prestigious marketing firm and despite her impressive qualifications and a track record of successful projects, she was often plagued with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. While starting her career, she found herself surrounded by highly talented and accomplished colleagues. Instead of feeling motivated and inspired, she felt overwhelmed and feared that she didn’t measure up to their level of expertise. Even the praise she received from her clients or supervisors, only enhanced her feelings that she was merely pretending to be competent, to be an impostor, and to someday be exposed. Interestingly, she attributed her accomplishments to external factors such as luck or good timing, rather than acknowledging her own skills and hard work. This constant self-doubt began to affect her confidence and hinder her professional growth. She often hesitated to voice her ideas, fearing that they would be dismissed as inadequate or foolish. She would compare herself to her colleagues, convinced that they possessed a deeper understanding of the industry and were more deserving of success. Komal’s impostor syndrome created a vicious cycle. The more she doubted herself, the more her anxiety grew, leading to even greater self-criticism.
Impostor Syndrome, a phenomenon characterised by persistent self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy despite evident success, has become a prevalent issue in the business world. From entry-level employees to top executives, many individuals experience the nagging fear of being exposed as frauds, hindering their professional growth and overall well-being. Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first identified this phenomenon in the 1970s. It is not classified as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Interestingly, various interventions have been explored to help individuals overcome impostor syndrome. These include cognitive-behavioural therapy, group interventions, mentoring and support networks, self-reflection exercises, and cultivating a growth mindset. Impostor syndrome presents a significant challenge in the corporate world, affecting the well-being and performance of employees. By incorporating the lessons learned from impostor syndrome, organisations can create a culture that supports employees in overcoming self-doubt and embracing their true potential.
Understanding the Individual Challenges
Impostor syndrome can manifest in various ways, impacting individuals’ confidence, performance, and career progression. From a business standpoint, these challenges can have adverse effects on productivity, collaboration, and talent retention.
Self-Doubt and Fear of Failure: Individuals grappling with impostor syndrome often doubt their abilities and fear that their achievements are merely a result of luck or external factors. This self-doubt can hinder decision-making, risk-taking, and innovative thinking, stifling individual and organisational growth.
Perfectionism and Overworking: Impostor syndrome can drive individuals to set excessively high standards for themselves, leading to perfectionism and a constant need to prove their worth. This can result in burnout, decreased productivity, and an unhealthy work-life balance.
Undermined Self-Confidence: Despite external recognition and accomplishments, individuals with impostor syndrome struggle to internalise their successes. This lack of self-confidence can limit their ability to speak up, take on new challenges, and assume leadership roles.
Organisations and Impostor Syndrome
Impostor syndrome thrives in an environment where individuals fear judgment and scrutiny. To counter this, organisations must prioritise cultivating psychological safety — a culture where employees feel comfortable expressing their ideas, seeking help, and taking calculated risks without the fear of harsh judgment or ridicule. By fostering an environment that encourages open communication, collaboration, and learning from mistakes, organisations can help individuals overcome impostor syndrome and unlock their full potential.
A fixed mindset, characterised by the belief that abilities and intelligence are fixed traits, fuels impostor syndrome. Organisations should promote a growth mindset, emphasising that skills and abilities can be developed through effort, learning, and experience. Encouraging continuous learning, providing opportunities for professional development, and celebrating progress can help individuals embrace challenges and view setbacks as opportunities for growth, reducing the impact of impostor syndrome.
Mentorship and sponsorship programs play a crucial role in combating impostor syndrome. Pairing individuals with experienced mentors or sponsors who can provide guidance, support, and advocacy can help individuals build confidence, navigate challenges, and gain valuable insights. Organisations should invest in these programs, creating formal structures that facilitate meaningful connections and foster professional growth.
Regular feedback and recognition are vital tools for combating impostor syndrome. Encourage managers and leaders to provide constructive feedback that acknowledges employees’ strengths and areas for improvement. Recognising accomplishments and publicly appreciating employees’ contributions can help validate their achievements, boost self-confidence, and alleviate feelings of impostorism.
Diversity and inclusion initiatives have a direct impact on combating impostor syndrome. Creating diverse teams that value different perspectives and experiences helps individuals realise that their unique contributions are valued. Organisations should strive to create an inclusive culture where everyone feels a sense of belonging, fostering an environment where individuals can thrive without feeling like they need to prove themselves constantly.
An Alternative View
Valerie Young, an internationally recognised expert on impostor syndrome, in a Ted talk explores what causes this syndrome. She argues a need for re-framing. So, when some acknowledges don’t say, ‘Really?’, but instead, ‘Thank You’. Vincella Smith in her Kellogg MBA Graduation speech argues ‘Stay an impostor syndrome for as long as you humanly can!’ arguing that such folks tend to remain humble and curious. Jordon Peterson argues that impostor syndrome is natural every time you make a transition to a new role. Yet, while you are grappling with the inadequacy/discomfort you must act as if you are confident (even if you were on your maiden flight as a pilot, for example). Anyone who is not narcissistic would feel that. You can be ignorant, but you should be attentive and be willing to ask questions. Reshma Saujine argues that it is not a syndrome as it is being made out to be, rather it is a scheme. She asserts that it is not a problem for her to solve nor for anyone to solve. She believes this whole phenomenon was built on lies, the first one, is that perhaps there is something wrong with you (that you are the problem) even while asserting that being uncomfortable and having anxiety is a natural response to stressful situations. Systemic and structural inequality cannot be mitigated by individuals alone. She asserts that it is never about competence, qualification, being smart, etc. but it is all about political, financial and cultural barriers.