Loosely defined, imposter syndrome means to have feelings of doubt, or to experience a lack of confidence, in your ability to perform your job; that you feel you are not deserving of your place or position. For an individual experiencing this lack of confidence in their ability, this can be crippling to both their own mental health, but also to the quality of their work and the overall performance of their team, department or the business. This means that the issues associated with imposter syndrome are not only felt at an individual, personal level, but pose a real issue to the performance of the business, especially where more than one individual is affected. It stands to reason, therefore, that the responsibility for supporting individuals that experience imposter syndrome falls to the business itself.
But how can a business support their employees with something so personal, and often not spoken of? What are the indicators of someone experiencing imposter syndrome and what are the types of support the business can offer to help them deal with – and eventually overcome – the feeling of being an imposter. Importantly, how and why should L&D take the lead in combatting imposter syndrome as a personal and business burden?
Before we discuss these options, it is worth noting that imposter syndrome more often affects individuals that occupy a position of responsibility or power. It is especially prevalent amongst women or those classed as being in a minority, but can affect anyone. It can be associated with an individuals career progression, their socio-economic position, their fit within the wider culture of the business, or any number of other reasons. With that being the case, how do we identify it in the first place?
How to identify symptoms of imposter syndrome
It can be difficult to recognise when an individual is dealing with imposter syndrome, but it’s not impossible. This difficulty comes from the fact that often, people can display a false confidence to mask the feelings they are dealing with. Despite this, some common ways of identifying where someone may have feelings of being an imposter at work are;
- Berating or minimising their performance
- Downplaying their expertise
- Sensitivity to criticism (constructive or otherwise)
- Sabotaging their own success
These indicators will often come to the fore when the individual is going through personal development, promotion, performance management or disciplinary action – all activities that we are involved in as L&D and HR professionals, so this is an aspect that we should be aware of when supporting that individual through these activities.
What support can you offer?
As L&D and HR professionals, we are in a position where we can support the individual, but also the business with overcoming feelings of being an imposter. In addition to the personal support, there is a huge amount that we can do to support leaders and managers to correctly support these individuals, as often they will be best placed to do so. Some practical support we can provide to our leaders and managers includes;
Recognition – giving them the tools to recognise the signs is an important first step. Additionally, making sure they recognise that imposter syndrome can very quickly become a cycle with increasingly negative impacts will help them to create the right and timely approach to supporting the individual
Celebrating successes – it is important to focus on the positives and the wins. This will allow the individual to recognise their value to the business. Work with your management teams to make sure successes are celebrated; whether this is formally through 1-to-1’s or through weekly success ‘toolbox talks’.
Recognise accomplishments and contribution – ensure the individual is recognised for their contribution. If managers are successful at allocating work equally throughout their team, then communicating their appreciation for a job well done once this work is completed, this can avoid the feeling of not being able to contribute. Much like celebrating successes, make sure accomplishments are recognised (such as successfully completing a course, or the end of a project).
Don’t compare to others – the practice of comparing one employee to another in never a great idea, especially when the one being compared suffers from imposter syndrome. Trying to improve the performance of one employee by comparing them to another should be avoided, and supporting your managers in understanding more productive and effective ways to improve performance is important.
Create a positive response to failure – It can be hard to be positive when failure occurs, but this is crucial to ensure the cycle of self-doubt doesn’t continue. Developing our leaders and managers to develop a positive response to failure – such as looking at lessons learnt and turning this into a positive development opportunity, or to focus on positive action as a response rather than blame, will all go a long way to breaking this cycle.
Despite the number of people that experience imposter syndrome, there is still a lack of focus on it as a business issue, and what can be done through effective management, employee development and support. As L&D and HR professionals, we should recognise its impact and make sure that we are providing solutions to either avoid it being an issue in the first place, or to support those experiencing it. These solutions are essentially good practice in our areas of expertise anyway.
Through individual support and providing our leaders and managers with the tools to recognise, support and manage instances of imposter syndrome, we will ensure our businesses retain higher performing, more engaged and confident employees with positive mindsets around success, as well as failure.