Impostor Phenomenon & Why It’s Faking You Out

In last week’s post, I wrote about the importance of building confidence. This is definitely an important quality to develop for workplace success, but unfortunately, confidence can waver. We all have moments of higher and lower confidence. Some of us may even experience long spells of self-doubt. In the world of academia, that serious low in confidence and overwhelming self-doubt has come to be known as the impostor phenomenon.

Making It… And Still Faking It

To be clear, the impostor phenomenon isn’t the fraudulent feeling you’d get from posing as someone you’re not. Instead, this refers to self doubt despite your qualifications and accomplishments. It’s an objectively unjustified lack of confidence. In fact, famous people like Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein have felt this feeling, as this video explains. And this Forbes article demonstrates that the impostor phenomenon can even strike C-level executives. You may be wondering: why?

Well, the initial study to identify this phenomenon was conducted on a sample of high-achieving women. Since then, research explained in this article has found that transitions like promotions are actually likely to trigger this experience. In other words, getting recognized for being competent can make you doubt your competence! That’s probably because being in a new role with new responsibilities creates a gap. That gap lies between the reality (that you’re qualified) and your perception (that you’re not). This gap probably manifests as one of various power gaps.

This article from coach Kathy Caprino explains that power gaps lead professionals, especially women, to lose confidence in their success. They’re essentially instances where professionals can’t tap into the self-assurance they ought to have. A power gap may result from not recognizing your own talents, or not knowing how to speak confidently without bragging. It could also occur if you’re afraid to negotiate a higher salary to reflect your real impact. If you’re hesitant to network with other professionals or shy away from confronting coworkers over injustice, that’s a power gap too. Finally, if you haven’t mastered the growth mindset I described here, you may be letting past failures hold you back. Here’s a survey you can take to see which of these power gaps might be affecting you.

Hitting Back at Self-Doubt

So let’s say you know you’ve got a power gap affecting you at work. You can admit it: you’re experiencing the impostor phenomenon. What can you do? Well, there are a lot of strategies to try.

This recent article collected advice from the Forbes Coaches Council on best practices for overcoming impostor phenomenon. One way to approach this issue is to just embrace it. Recognize that this obstacle doesn’t reflect your competence, and lean into the challenge of new responsibilities. It may also be helpful to remind yourself of your past successes. Know that this situation may be challenging, but you are up for it. Don’t let any one overwhelming project define who you are as a professional.

This study from October 2020 was conducted by KPMG as part of their annual Women’s Leadership Summit. The women who participated in that research listed some of their own top strategies for overcoming impostor phenomenon. These included advocating for fair compensation and reaching out to a mentor. The experts in this article agree that finding a supportive mentor is key. Seeking feedback from others in general may be a good way to remember your own worth. Finally, setting reasonable goals is important. (I wrote about productive goal-setting here.) Aim for success, not perfection. Otherwise, you’ll inevitably fall short.

Finally, this insightful TED talk by an Australian billionaire and CEO, Mike Cannon-Brookes, puts an interesting twist on handling impostor phenomenon. He suggests that the worst thing to do in the face of self-doubt is to freeze up. Instead, he encourages the audience to acknowledge new opportunities gratefully and lean in! Ask for advice and do the best you can in your new role or project. As Cannon-Brookes advises, question ideas, not yourself.

Are We All Impostors?

So far, we’ve talked about the impostor phenomenon as an individual issue. Sure, it’s common, but does it really affect everyone? Maybe it’s just some kinds of people who are prone to lacking in self-confidence. In fact, research shows that impostor phenomenon does affect some groups disproportionately, but it can certainly happen to anyone.

As this TED-Ed video explains, the impostor phenomenon has been documented in professionals of all ages, races, genders, and professions. We might not realize how common it is, though, because we don’t talk openly about it. Instead, we suffer from pluralistic ignorance. That’s a fancy way of saying that we think we’re alone in our struggle. Really, just about anyone and everyone can and will experience impostor phenomenon at some point in their careers.

On the other hand, as I mentioned above, not all groups are equally affected. As this article by coach Kathy Caprino notes, women are more likely than men to doubt themselves professionally. That KPMG study from last year actually found that 75% of women executives reported experiencing the impostor phenomenon. And as this piece explains, professionals of underrepresented groups, like people of color, are also disproportionately likely to feel this self-doubt. Knowing this reality, we have to understand the root causes of the disparity.

Culture: the Real Impostor at Work

As it turns out, it may be workplace cultures that are at fault for us individual professionals feeling like fakers. Some organizations that call themselves supportive and inclusive may be the real frauds here! This HBR article makes a powerful argument for holding the context accountable. It explains that when workplaces make women and members of minority groups feel unwelcome, they breed the kind of doubt that we call the impostor phenomenon. It makes sense, if you think about it. Telling someone they’re unlikely to succeed will make them think twice about whether they deserve to be here. And when a professional sees the stats on how few women and people of color are welcomed into professional leadership positions, discouragement feels justified.

The article suggests that by blurring the background influences and focusing on individuals, organizations avoid taking responsibility for this issue. That needs to stop. Workplace leaders who step up to the plate can make a big difference for their employees. It starts with shifting the culture.

How Leaders Can Change the Narrative

Coach Kathy Caprino, whom I referenced earlier, has some advice for leaders here. If you’re ready to do more to prevent the impostor phenomenon from striking your employees, start with better communication. Empathic language that validates how employees feel can make a big difference. Let your employees and team members know that the impostor phenomenon is common and real. Share how much you value your employees, and make sure it shows in their paycheck.

Additionally, Caprino recommends prioritizing a diversity of backgrounds and opinions in hiring. This article thinks a few steps ahead and focuses on retaining diverse talent as well. Leaders who address bias and discrimination in their organizations will help women and minority employees feel better supported. This will lessen their risk of experiencing impostor phenomenon. This other article shares some concrete ways to achieve these lofty goals. Educating employees and increasing representation of diverse identities in leadership are just two approaches to shifting the organizational culture.

Whether you’re a C-level executive or an entry-level professional, I hope something in this article has resonated with you. If you remember anything, let it be this: impostor phenomenon is normal. It’s common, and it’s not your fault. You can rise above the challenge of feeling like a faker by remembering how accomplished and great you really are. To paraphrase: question the culture, not yourself.