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I'll tell you something: Imposter syndrome is all too real, so what is HR doing to combat it?

21 Feb 2019 By Dr Terri Simpkin

Imposter syndrome is more than just the latest social media fad, says Dr Terri Simpkin

You’ve probably noticed that imposter syndrome has received a fair bit of coverage in the media lately. Sadly, we’re seeing a highly oversimplified view of what can be a debilitating and long-term experience – limiting careers, sapping motivation and suppressing potential.

Best described as an often illogical sense of fraudulence affecting individuals at work, imposter syndrome isn’t even a syndrome – if anything, it’s a phenomenon. But its impact on organisations is all too real, and that’s where HR departments have a role to play.

One of the key areas where HR and imposter syndrome intersect is performance management, which is an imposter’s nightmare. The thought of having to talk about achievements is highly uncomfortable. Imposters will attribute their successes to others or to luck, or dismiss them completely, while absorbing all responsibility for any failures.

Managers can minimise this by knowing the person and their work. Using objective measures as evidence to counter the dismissal of achievement gives the imposter surety that their work is of merit. 

If managers are clearly unaware of what the imposter actually does in their role, any feedback, good or otherwise, will be dismissed. In a recent study, a participant suggested: “If she doesn’t know what I do, how can I trust her judgement on my work? It’s all platitudes.”

Meanwhile. in an environment where pay gaps are under scrutiny, it’s important to examine how imposter experiences may make a contribution. In pay negotiations, imposters are more likely to undervalue their contribution because they attribute past achievements and successes to others. 

In an age where costs are tightly controlled, cutting corners and allowing people to undersell themselves as an intentional strategy is tempting. But cutting back on salaries will only add extra costs elsewhere when disengagement and dissatisfaction lead to underperformance and talent wastage.

By contrast, where accurate, objective and informed assessments of the value individuals bring the organisation are more robust, negotiations must challenge the imposter’s own undervaluation of their work and talent potential.  

Which brings us to recruitment. Much work has been done to strip out the kind of language that puts people off applying for roles. Research shows people experiencing impostor syndrome go through advertisements crossing off what they can’t do, or where their experience appears deficient. They discount themselves, only to report anger and disappointment when the appointee is less qualified or capable than they are.

Having removed biased language, organisations must now take a more active approach. They can strip out the ‘nice to haves’ in favour of the absolute minimum skills and abilities. Look more closely at potential and make inferential leaps from what someone has done to what’s required – even if it’s a different role.  

Managers should not just shout from the rooftops that they’re looking for potential candidates for roles. Use accurate performance data (formal or informal) to help make decisions about a person’s abilities and convince them they have value to bring to a role.  

Imposters are masters at rationalising away their capabilities and may need persuading to apply. Where talent is at a premium, it’s a leader’s obligation to make sure they tap every available seam of capability, even if it needs a little mining.

Imposter syndrome as a workplace issue is complex, but it’s clear that it underpins a number of seemingly intractable challenges currently faced by organisations. However, with a little consideration and by responding appropriately to diminish the phenomenon in individuals, we can all enjoy more successful workplaces.

Dr Terri Simpkin is an academic, public speaker and author of the Braver Stronger Smarter programme

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