Can people with imposter syndrome thrive at work?

Sarah Hudson explores how the phenomenon can affect an employee’s creativity and productivity, as well as their self-perception

Can people with imposter syndrome thrive at work?

Imagine that you believe you’re not really up to your job, and that any success you achieve is due to luck or charm. Does your perceived inadequacy make you feel ashamed? And will it affect your work performance or have long term consequences for your career?

These are important questions that Professor Helena Gonzalez-Gomez of NEOMA Business School and I addressed in a study looking at the impostor phenomenon, or syndrome, at work.

The imposter syndrome is the feeling that your success is due to extraneous factors, rather than your own competence and qualifications, despite objective evidence to the contrary. Prior research has shown that impostor syndrome is particularly prominent in individuals with outstanding professional and academic accomplishments, and it is therefore worth exploring how impostor syndrome can affect anyone’s work performance and career.

There are many examples of internationally recognised figures who have experienced impostor syndrome, including Michelle Obama, Sheryl Sandberg and even Albert Einstein. Yet there is little scientific research examining the effects of impostor syndrome in a work setting, and none on how it might affect career success.

In our study, which surveyed a total of 648 employees in the US and Europe, we measured impostor syndrome as a spectrum, not on a “yes” or “no” basis. We found that around 30 per cent of respondents reported low feelings of impostor syndrome, and 69 per cent showed medium to high scores.

Interestingly, although women were previously thought to suffer more from the impostor syndrome than men, our data revealed that both men and women were equally likely to experience the syndrome in a work context. We also found that older employees and those with more work experience were less likely to suffer from the syndrome, so it might be especially detrimental to younger employees starting out in their career.

‘Impostors’ go beyond their job description to help colleagues

We found that the impostor syndrome is expressed as shame in response to both simulated and recalled real work events. Together, the impostor syndrome and shame deplete resources such that the ‘impostor’ suffers reduced ability to perform well at work in the short term, with negative consequences for career success. Also, when an ‘impostor’ experiences shame, there is a negative effect on creativity. 

The detrimental effect on creativity is worsened in organisations where there is less flexibility in work processes, rules, and regulations. Interestingly, we see that an organisational structure does not hinder or encourage organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB – a behaviour that consists in going beyond a person’s job description to help colleagues), suggesting that the impostor syndrome/shame/OCB relationship might be based on individual factors. This fits with the argument that impostors engage in OCB to replenish internal resources and repair self-image.

Lower career success without a significant impact on the salary

We found that the impostor syndrome is positively related to external employability, but has no relationship with internal employability. This is because when impostors stay within the comfort zone of their present job, their internal employability relates more to their actual performance rather than their self-attributed fraudulence. 

So, although impostors believe that they do not possess the abilities required to get a job outside their current organisation, the impostor syndrome is not relevant to perceptions about keeping their current job. 

Those suffering from impostor syndrome tend to have lower career success in terms of the number of positive appraisals and promotions they get throughout their career. However, it does not affect their salary.

Managerial feedback should be based on assessed performance

Impostor syndrome has a detrimental effect on creativity, with shame also playing an important role. Because they believe they are a fraud, and fear being shamed, impostors are more reluctant to show their creative side.

Impostor syndrome also operates together with shame to deplete personal resources. Negative emotions such as shame are a fundamental factor in the depletion of positive emotions such as optimism needed to cope effectively at work.

In the end, impostors are left depleted, unable to leverage their skills and talents to advance their careers. Because impostors struggle with their perceived inadequacies in everyday work settings, they can sometimes enter a negative resource spiral with a tangible decline in career success.

Because impostors are prone to feelings of failure, managerial feedback that avoids direct attributions of personal failure and instead focuses on the positive and how to improve performance in a more neutral manner is likely to increase creativity in individuals with impostor syndrome. Managers should also use appraisal and promotion tools that are more strongly weighted toward externally assessed performance rather than self-assessment.

Because impostors tend to underestimate their abilities, these steps could be a useful basis for fostering a higher sense of employability and enabling more successful career advancement for individuals with impostor syndrome.

Sarah Hudson is an associate professor and director of the PhD programme at Rennes School of Business