Imposter Syndrome: How to Overcome It at Work

Imposter syndrome can affect even the most successful people. So how can you keep it from holding you back?
Olivia McClure
March 12, 2021
Updated: June 4, 2021
Olivia McClure
March 12, 2021
Updated: June 4, 2021

Don’t feel like you deserve that raise? Feel like you’ve fooled everyone into believing you can handle the job you’ve been given? You’re not alone. The tech industry can be an intimidating place, so it’s unsurprising that so many people feel like they don’t have the skills to thrive within it.

This self-doubt stems from a phenomenon called imposter syndrome, and it affects millions of people, from high-performers to perfectionists.

An unwieldy 58 percent of tech workers experience imposter feelings, according to a study from workplace insights platform Blind. But what exactly does that look like?

“It’s this often unconscious but persistent belief that, deep down, you’re really not intelligent, capable, [or] competent,” said Valerie Young, TEDTalk speaker and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.

Don’t Let Imposter Syndrome Hold You Back

  • Be transparent and open.
  • Create a safe space for your team.
  • Normalize and contextualize feelings of self doubt.
  • Find a mentor.

Imposter syndrome is natural, and it shouldn’t determine our ability to handle things that come our way, said Harold Hillman, managing director at Sigmoid Curve Consulting Group and author of The Impostor Syndrome: Becoming an Authentic Leader.

“It’s not being weak,” Hillman said. “It’s just being human.”

 

Why Do We All Feel Like Imposters?

It might be hard to understand why people who are so obviously talented would feel like imposters, but there’s an explanation for that.

People who are forced to represent a certain group within a space feel like an imposter simply because they are not surrounded by people who look, act, or think like they do, Young said. That’s why a woman on an engineering team made up mostly of men, for instance, might experience imposter feelings.

“Some might assume that people with more degrees are less likely to feel like an imposter, but it’s actually the opposite.”

Your educational background can play a role as well, Young said. Just because someone has a couple of degrees, doesn’t mean they’re less likely to feel like an imposter.

A fear of failure is also a common catalyst for these feelings, said Pauline Clance, practicing psychologist and author of The Impostor Phenomenon. As a result, those feelings can result in people to missing out on advice from their peers or trying new things.

 

What Imposter Syndrome Looks Like in the Workplace

In the workplace, imposter syndrome can take on many forms. For some people, no matter how many promotions or outstanding performance evaluations they get, it still feels like they don’t deserve success.

Yet, that doesn’t mean people who feel like imposters look outwardly dejected or insecure. In truth, it’s not always easy to tell if someone is experiencing imposter syndrome, but there are some signs to look out for, Young said.

“It might manifest in somebody I refer to as ‘flying under the radar,’” Young said. “So it might be the person who you know is perfectly capable and qualified, but they don’t speak up.”

People like this often don’t ask questions, share ideas in meetings, or take on more opportunities and assignments, Young said. By keeping their heads down, they believe no one will see them as the imposters they think they are.

“It might be the person who you know is perfectly capable and qualified, but they don’t speak up.”

Perfectionists are also often prone to imposter feelings in the workplace, Clance said. Those who expect perfection often struggle more with setbacks and negative feedback from their managers, which can fuel imposter syndrome.

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What Can Happen If Imposter Feelings Roam Free

Feeling self doubt isn’t just a personal problem. When someone feels like an imposter, it can create an unproductive work environment for everyone.

Imposter syndrome can elicit feelings of anxiety and depression, Clance said. This often results in decreased morale and lack of motivation, which can be a significant barrier to progress.

Imposter feelings can also lead to burnout, Clance said. People who perpetually feel like imposters will eventually hit a wall of exhaustion, causing them to lose a sense of direction.

“Everybody loses when bright people play small.”

It’s crucial for people to recognize the overarching effects of imposter syndrome, Young said. It holds consequences for everyone, and that’s something that shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Everybody loses when bright people play small,” Young said.

 

How the Workplace Can Change

While imposter syndrome appears to be a common theme in many workplaces, there are many things leaders can do to stop it.

It’s crucial for leaders to maintain a sense of openness and transparency with their teams, said Marc Teer, CEO at Chicago-based education platform Black Spectacles. By owning up to their mistakes, leaders set an example for the rest of the team.

It’s key for teams to carve out a space for honesty, Teer said. That’s why his team uses weekly meetings to share “screw up, learn up” stories, where they discuss any mistakes they’ve made and what they learned from them.

One of the most important steps managers can take is to normalize imposter feelings, Young said. There can be a lot of shame involved, so talking about it more openly with your peers will reinforce the idea that it’s normal.

Contextualizing imposter feelings is the next step in the normalization process, Young said. Leaders should sit down with their peers to discuss the possible reasons why they feel like an imposter. This can also be used as an opportunity to reframe the situation.

“There can be a lot of shame involved, so talking about it more openly with your peers will reinforce the idea that it’s normal.”

“I want them, when they’re having a normal imposter moment, to hit the pause button and try to become consciously aware of the conversation that’s going on in their head, and then step back and reframe it the way somebody who doesn’t feel like an imposter would,” Young said.

Leaders can also benefit from finding support within their given industry, Teer said. Finding mentors within your community can make you feel more connected and gives you a better sense of how others have found success within the field.

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