Corina Acostoaei

Client Services Manager

Imposter syndrome was a term first used in Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes' 1978 paper, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamic and Therapeutic Intervention, but is a phenomenon that has gained more recognition in recent years. In her 1985 book The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear that Haunts your Success, Pauline Clance studied the topic further. Research from The International Journal of Behavioural Science estimates that 70% of us will experience imposter syndrome at least once in our lifetime.

And so an unlooked-for consequence of businesses who, when competing for in-demand talent, choose to promote or hire development candidates with potential has led to many employees feeling "undeserving of a seat at the table" or out of place and not confident in holding their own amongst peers.

Imposter Syndrome - What is it, and Who is Affected?

Imposter syndrome is a feeling of inadequacy where symptoms include questioning your abilities and believing you are unworthy of a promotion, new role, or raise.

Another way to look at it, is an inability to assess one's capabilities and skills realistically.

Valerie Young, the co-founder of the Imposter Syndrome Institute and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, identified five types of imposter syndrome.

Initially studied only on high-achieving women (by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes) and not considered an official psychiatric diagnosis, Imposter Syndrome is felt across all genders regardless of how (objectively) successful an individual is.

A blind study focusing on 17 global tech companies found that almost 58% of the survey participants were experiencing imposter syndrome and that working for a specific company did not dramatically influence that feeling. Despite a couple of outliers (Expedia at 72.88% and Cisco at 46.67%), most respondents were worried that they were being overpaid or severely under-skilled. These concerns were despite many having worked in the sector or even the same company for over 10 years.

When considering women executives across industries, KPMG found that 75% experience imposter syndrome in their careers and believes this is widely spread among the female leader population. The women executives included in the in-depth survey represent a range of industries across more than 150 of the world's leading organizations, indicating that sector or location are less important factors.


Additionally, 54% of responders for the KPMG study said that the more they are recognized for their skills through promotions, the more they feel like they don't belong in their new peer groups.

Can you still be Successful at Work if you are Experiencing Imposter Syndrome?

The short answer is YES. A recent BBC article discusses how even though imposter syndrome might make us believe there is a significant gap in our skills, in reality, the gap is minimal or non-existent in most cases. The article references Basima Tewfik, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Her empirical work shows that even in an interview scenario, hiring managers often cannot tell the difference between someone experiencing imposter syndrome and someone who is not based purely on their performance.

This leads to the conclusion that while it might feel like everyone around us can always tell when we are feeling like an imposter, in reality, the quality of work we produce is rarely impacted (except for extreme cases). Furthermore, someone experiencing imposter syndrome might even have better interpersonal skills.

Moreover, the evidence collected so far clearly shows that many of us experience imposter syndrome at least once in our work life. While this can lead to anxiety or even depression in extreme cases, it doesn't have to negatively impact career development and progression if managed appropriately.

So what can each of us do if we are Experiencing Imposter Syndrome at Work?

The first 'to do' is to acknowledge that this is a common phenomenon across all sectors and levels of leadership. And, in an article in the New York Times, Jessica Bennett offers some practical advice someone experiencing imposter syndrome can utilize in their everyday life:

  • Making a list of things they are good at
  • Owning their success rather than attributing it to luck or circumstances
  • Discussing it with a friend or colleague to gain perspective

Are there any Upsides to Imposter Syndrome?

While many organizations have studied imposter syndrome from a medical and societal perspective, most focus on what it is and how individuals can work to overcome it. But is there any upside to imposter syndrome?

A 2022 MIT study suggested that some employees have learned not only to live with imposter syndrome but also to utilize it to their advantage in a workplace environment.

People with these feelings tend to overachieve in multiple areas, such as teamwork, social interactions, or interpersonal skills, with no impact on their performance.

Basima Tewfik has explored this positive relationship. She suggests that when studying imposter syndrome effects within an investment management firm and a physician training program, she discovered that individuals were more likely to have better interpersonal skills with their internal and external stakeholders in both cases. While Tewfik doesn’t imply that the only way to build team working skills is through imposter syndrome, she does raise an interesting theory that if managed effectively, imposter syndrome can lead to positive outcomes.

Furthermore, Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of Business, takes it one step further to say that imposter feelings can be the fuel some of us need to succeed.

It can motivate us to work harder to prove ourselves and work smarter to fill gaps in our knowledge and skills. Adam Grant, Organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of Business

How can Employees Support each other?

The first step in supporting your employees to deal with imposter syndrome is recognizing the signs. While behaviours can differ depending on the type of imposter syndrome someone is experiencing, they are usually focused on extremes and indicate a change in their normal behaviour. These can include:

  • Attributing their success to luck and being reluctant to take credit for their efforts.
  • They are less involved in meetings and do not like getting advice from others as they fear being criticized

  • They refuse to undertake more significant tasks for fear of failure

  • They are setting goals that are too challenging and feel discouraged when they don't meet them

It can be hard to identify if someone you work with is experiencing imposter syndrome, especially as they might have always been an overachiever or don't feel comfortable enough sharing their fears in a public forum. However, constantly working towards a culture of inclusion, where employees' successes are recognized and celebrated, can be an effective way of allowing your employees to "go the extra mile" without feeling like the organization is fostering an "all work, no play" environment.

Additionally, creating an open forum where candid discussions across different groups are normalized, might improve the feeling of loneliness that those experiencing imposter syndrome can have.

Openly discussing self-doubt and fear of failure will help your employees develop skills that are key to their development, such as empathy, delegating, and supporting each other.

Use feedback as a 360 tool not only to praise your employees on their successes and identify areas for improvement but also as an opportunity for them to discuss areas of development for managers and the company culture.

This increased feedback culture will, in turn, create a longer-term two-way interaction where both parties are invested in creating an environment where all can thrive regardless of their level within the business.

While imposter syndrome can affect individuals regardless of gender, seniority level, and sector, women in leadership roles are often more affected as they tend to feel lonelier in their peer groups. Therefore, ensuring diverse representation at all organizational levels is key to ensuring a support network exists to allow for effective communication.

Armstrong Craven's approach to talent mapping, pipelining and executive search is grounded in research. We are continuously inspired by our clients' innovation, compassion, and growth, many of whom we support to optimize critical programs, including DE&I or succession planning. In addition, our research-driven approach enables us to gather essential insights into competitors and niche talent populations, empowering our clients to attract and retain top talent in an ever-changing world.

Want to know more? Speak to Corina Acostoaei