Imposter phenomenon

Imposter phenomenon

Issue 201

What is imposter phenomenon and why is it bad for the health of employees and their organisations? BRIDGET JELLEY and NGAIRE WALLACE explain and suggest preventive measures.

When we experience Imposter Phenomenon we feel like frauds who at any moment will be caught out as failures, despite external evidence of our success. We have the sense that we are faking it, fooling all those around us into accepting a competence that we don’t really possess.

Think of it like Tall Poppy syndrome, where we cut ourselves down rather than being cut down by others.

Imposter Phenomenon might seem relatively benign – after all, nobody likes a braggart – but it can impact performance and is associated with burnout and depression.

Research by Dr Jarrod Haar and Kirsty de Jong discovered that almost half of the New Zealand workers they surveyed experienced Imposter Phenomenon either frequently or intensely, and that IP was positively associated with poorer wellbeing.

People experiencing Imposter Phenomenon are likely to experience higher levels of stress and anxiety at work, as they spend more time worrying about their performance. They may over-work to prove their adequacy but are less likely to apply for promotion or volunteer for challenges, believing that they will fail and be caught out as frauds. They may even self-sabotage by picking holes in their own work.

This poses a risk for leaders, as their people experiencing Imposter Syndrome may not ask for support. They may hide their real skill level, believing success to be a result of luck rather than talent.

The knock-on effect to organisations is increased stress levels, increased risk of burnout, and people covering up their true potential. Organisations may look to recruit externally, not realising the degree of talent hiding in plain sight.


Who is most at risk?

Minority groups are often thought to be most at risk of Imposter Phenomenon, but the research does not always back this up. Haar and de Jong’s research indicated no differences based on gender or race. Other studies have shown mixed results.

We know from research on micro-aggressions that women and people of colour are more likely to be talked over in meetings, presumed to be less experienced than they are, and overlooked for promotion. Is it any wonder that they may internalise some of these feelings of exclusion, or have anxiety around their work based on the very real experience of prejudice?

However, there is a risk when singling out minority groups as being more at risk of Imposter Phenomenon that we blame the individual for an apparent lack of confidence when in fact discrimination is at play. This is one reason why we use the word ‘Phenomenon’ rather than ‘Syndrome’ – to put the experience of Imposter Phenomenon into a social context rather than making it an individual issue.


What to do about it?

What can protect us against feeling like a fake and instead feel like we belong?

Foster an inclusive culture

Employers can help to protect their teams from feeling like imposters by fostering an inclusive culture, where people see reflections of themselves as role models. Give employees access to other employee stories, and in particular stories that show a variety of paths to success. Ensure that minority groups have access to opportunities – this may mean offering flexible paths to employment such as home working or flexible hours.

Talk about it

Leaders who are vulnerable about their own sense of inadequacy or nervousness can help others to feel more comfortable in admitting a natural fear of failure.

Share constructive and positive feedback early and often

Don’t presume that your team know how much you value their work. Tell them regularly. Share feedback early and often.

Examine recruitment and promotional procedures

When conducting interviews or examining work for promotional possibilities, consider whether you are only hearing from those who shout the loudest. Be alert for signs that a person is ‘talking themselves down’; remember that according to Haar and de Jong’s recent research, 50% of Kiwis are experiencing Imposter Syndrome intensely or frequently!


Let talent flourish!

Imposter Phenomenon affects a wide range of people and can be difficult to spot, but with empathetic leadership and a supportive working culture we can help to keep our people safe and create an environment where talent will flourish, rather than hide.


Registered psychologist Bridget Jelley is a director and Ngaire Wallace is a content writer with Glia Ltd, which specialises in psychosocial risk management and workplace mental health.

Subscribe today for health, safety and wellbeing news and insights

Safeguard Magazine

Subscribe today for health, safety and wellbeing news and insights

Other articles