Belongingness: The Antidote to Workplace Imposter Syndrome

What is Imposter Syndrome? 

Imposter syndrome refers to the phenomenon of qualified, competent, proven professionals feeling like frauds, or “imposters,” who will soon be discovered as lacking the skills required for their job.

Infographic on Imposter Syndrome signs: Over-apologizing, fear, lack of confidence, avoiding opportunities.

It’s more than a temporary anxiety about beginning a new roleit’s a persistent feeling of inadequacy that doesn’t go away, even when there’s ample evidence of a person’s success in their role.

While initially thought to be more prevalent in women, SHRM has found new studies from 2022 that show imposter syndrome is also prevalent in recent graduates and other minority groups. In fact, on average, the older a person was, the less likely they were to say they’ve experienced imposter syndrome.

What Causes Imposter Syndrome?

According to the Imposter Syndrome Institute, impostor syndrome “comes down to having:

  • An unrealistic, unsustainable notion of what it means to be ‘competent’ 
  • An unhealthy response to failure, mistakes, setbacks, and constructive feedback 
  • The false belief that if we were ‘really’ competent, intelligent, [and] qualified, we’d feel confident 24/7″

This is interesting when compared against the age ranges reporting experiencing imposter syndrome. Why are so many young people not confident in their skills? Is it because expectations are higher? Because of internal or external pressure? Maybe it’s another side effect of the pandemic and how much change the workforce underwent between 2020 and 2022.

Regardless of the causes, it’s clear that a large portion of workers struggle with unrealistic expectations and warped thoughts about what it means to be competent.

These thought patterns can lead to or increase existing feelings of unworthiness. External factors can further compound these feelings; these factors might include what a person’s economic or educational background is, whether their field is highly critical or intense in its feedback, and if their workplace is diverse and welcoming of their gender, race, sexuality, etc. 

Additionally, if a person’s internal dialog is reinforced by culture, gender, racial, or other stereotypes, they may interpret that as validation of their negative thoughts. 

Others may see what people think of stereotyped people like them and try to adjust and cover who they are to fit in. This is especially true in business sectors that are predominately the same. A person struggling to fit in is more likely to experience imposter syndrome and will more readily believe internal feelings of inadequacy.

The Warning Signs of Imposter Syndrome

While everyone has self-doubt occasionally, imposter syndrome is more persistent and doesn’t reflect reality. For example, it’s natural to be nervous about starting a new job, and a person might feel less confident for weeks or months until they get caught up in their new role. 

But someone with imposter syndrome will continue to have those less confident feelings, even after they’ve settled into the job. In fact, they might even question why they were given the job in the first place or tell people that they just “got lucky.” They may have trouble acknowledging that they earned their position by working hard and being competent.

HubSpot describes additional signs of imposter syndrome in the workplace as: 

  • Apologizing when you haven’t done anything wrong
  • Being overcome by a fear of failure
  • Being worried of being seen as annoying instead of confident
  • And refusing promotions and leadership opportunities 

This suggests that people who catch themselves having these negative thoughts take the time to self-reflect on where those thoughts are coming from and how they’re impacting their career.

It’s also important to reflect on what kinds of expectations a person is putting on themselves and why. Sometimes, when there’s ambiguity, people will fill in the gaps with their own interpretation of what it means to succeed. Those assumptions might be unrealistic or overreaching when compared to what management actually expects. 

Newer employees are especially susceptible to this type of distorted thinking because they’re not as familiar with the business landscape and feel a need to prove themselves as quickly as possible. Without clear guidelines, their confidence can be shaken, leading to imposter syndrome.

How Does Imposter Syndrome Affect Employees?

When unchecked, imposter syndrome can lead to depression and anxiety, which will impact work performance. This becomes a negative spiral where lower work performance can lead to increased depression and so on, ultimately leading to lower job satisfaction and burnout. Mental health can also impact physical health and could lead to other serious health complications.

LinkedIn points out that people with imposter syndrome “don’t lack confidence, they miss a sense of belonging.” 

This helps explain why many who experience imposter syndrome are minorities—it’s their minority status that causes them to struggle to fit in. Trying to fit in causes them to lose their sense of self, ultimately making them feel like imposters.

How Does It Affect the Workplace? 

By covering up their true selves, people are also depriving the company of their unique perspectives. Unmotivated, depressed, or burned-out workers don’t produce the best results. Those who cover up large parts of themselves aren’t sharing their full talents with their teams.

That kind of mental burden can cause “brain fog,” which further slows down a person’s ability to do their jobs. And if they do get physically sick from neglecting their mental health, that translates into missed workdays.

For the most part, effects of imposter syndrome are negative and unhealthy. However, a new study from MIT has found one positive outcome. Researcher Basima Twefik found that people who experienced imposter syndrome often had higher-functioning social skills. 

Her theory is, “People who have workplace imposter thoughts become more other-oriented… as they become more other-oriented, they get evaluated as being high in interpersonal effectiveness.” Twefik also warns that imposter thoughts lower self-esteem, so individuals should pursue healthier ways to improve their interpersonal communication skills.

How to Cultivate a Sense of Belongingness in the Workplace 

With imposter syndrome so prevalent across industries and employees, addressing it becomes increasingly important for businesses to succeed and maintain a healthy workforce. This starts with creating a working environment where employees feel like they belong. 

One important aspect of belonging is being able to express doubts in a safe place. SHRM has identified a best practice that leaders can follow: focusing on creating safe spaces. 

Having different scales of engagement and ratios of leaders to employees allows people to choose a method of interaction and sharing that’s most comfortable for them. This can include one-on-one meetings, resource groups, town hall meetings, and open-door office hours.

Another critical component of creating safe spaces is nurturing a culture where failure is okay. Innovation is rarely achieved immediately—trial and error is a cornerstone of learning and advancing technology. In some workplaces, employees feel pressured to succeed, and they worry that any missteps will be seen as failures that negatively impact performance. 

It’s important for employees to know that failure isn’t always an unacceptable result, and that the learnings and improvements made from those failures are what’s most important. Leaders can demonstrate this approach by openly sharing their failures, what they’ve learned, and how they used those findings to improve the next time.

For many employees, seeing this kind of leadership is inspiring, but it can be difficult to apply them to a different job or a role in another part of the company. Assigning mentors gives employees someone to talk with one-on-one and regularly, providing workers with consistent feedback. 

A mentor will get to know the employee more closely and be able to offer more focused advice that’s tailored to that person’s strengths, encouraging them through their weaknesses.

Sometimes, more formal training can help accelerate culture change or bring new hires up to speed on the company culture and how they value belonging. Ensure the training is customized for your company, feels inclusive to all employees, and lays out clear steps individuals can take to improve and succeed in their careers.

Collaboration is one key area where training can be especially useful. If employees aren’t used to collaborating or working across teams, they may not know how to get started, even if they want to be more inclusive. Having a dedicated time to focus on building those team relationships, defining a shared vision, and learning how to work together can be a powerful way to kickstart a new focus on collaboration and teamwork.

Manager training is also valuable. Not all managers know about imposter syndrome or how best to support employees that might be struggling with it. Empowering managers with the knowledge and tools to actively watch for and support employees as they experience imposter syndrome will raise their confidence and boost employee morale. It will also help prevent managers from accidentally ignoring a situation or falling prey to imposter syndrome themselves.

Managers can create an additional safe space where career questions and doubts can be discussed on a regular basis. They can help identify areas for growth and encourage employees who may be struggling to embrace new opportunities. 

They can take this a step further by managing and coaching employees through the changes to help build up their confidence in new areas. A good manager will create the space for their employees to learn; the manager will then work with other team leaders to improve the company’s collective strengths.

Finally, one of the most effective ways to create belonging and help employees overcome imposter syndrome is to focus on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts at all levels of the company. 

DEI programs help educate the majority about the challenges of minority groups and give them more of the support they need to feel like they belong. DEI-inspired training shouldn’t focus on what employees should do to fit in. Rather, it should focus on how employees can work together and leverage each other’s differences to create better products that have more impact.

How Can We Prevent Imposter Syndrome?

As DEI efforts take off and employees of all types are embraced for their divergent thoughts, opinions, and even failures, everyone will start to see how the company values diversity. They’ll also see how it strives to create a safe place where employees belong and do their best work.

Having a culture of open communication also allows employees to feel safe openly discussing imposter syndrome. Leaders that open up and share their human experiences can inspire others to do the same. They’ll encourage those with imposter syndrome by showing them that they’re not alone and that many successful people still struggle with self-doubt.

According to HubSpot, people who suffer from imposter syndrome are usually high-achieving perfectionists. They set the bar high, sometimes unrealistically so, and often hold themselves to a higher standard than everyone else. 

Cultivating a culture where it’s okay to fail also helps combat these perfectionistic tendencies. Being clear on project requirements and what’s considered “good enough” can also help prevent employees from getting stuck endlessly fine-tuning their projects to make them perfect.

It might not be as obvious, but tracking and measuring success can also help in combating imposter syndrome. Plus, it’s just a good business practice that helps projects succeed. Those with imposter syndrome struggle to accept praise and acknowledge their accomplishments, and they often downplay their work to others and in their own minds. 

Having a track record of the work being done gives employees concrete proof of what they’ve contributed. Taking that one step further, having clearly defined and measurable definitions of success allows employees to objectively measure how they’re doing with less room for personal interpretation or deflection.

It takes time and effort to invest in culture changes to create a safe space where belongingness can thrive, but the positive impact on employee health, job satisfaction, and performance is well worth the investment. 

It’s essential to invest in new hires and younger employees through mentoring, expectation setting, and DEI programs. That way, they’ll start their career with the right mindset and are set up for long-term confidence and success.

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