Impostor Syndrome is Not Just an Individual Issue, It’s a Human Resource Issue
(and, here's what HR can do about it!)
The term Impostor Syndrome (IS) was first introduced in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to a psychological pattern in which a person doubts their accomplishments and abilities and has constant worries that others will discover they are not “good enough”. Even when faced with evidence of their competence, they are convinced that they are frauds, often dismissing their success as luck, charm or simply good timing.
For those struggling with IS there is a wealth of articles containing advice on how to overcome your fraudulent feelings. However, IS affects more than just the individual, it has very real, bottom-line impacts on companies as well, making IS not just an individual issue but rather a human resource issue.
Exactly who has Impostor Syndrome and why should a company care?
IS was once believed to be solely a woman’s issue but the landmark 2019 Impostor Syndrome Research Study conducted by Clare Josa dispelled that myth, verifying that 49% of male respondents and 52% of female respondents indicated they had struggled with Impostor Syndrome "regularly" or "daily" in the past year. Josa’s research consisted of a survey of 2,000 men and women across companies of varying sizes, from solo entrepreneurs to FTSE-100 companies. It studied not only the impacts of IS on the individual but also on the company.
While IS can affect a company in a variety of ways one of the most striking findings of Josa’s research is around procrastination; 62% of respondents said they procrastinated as a result of IS. According to Josa, “… they outwardly seemed to be working towards a goal, but their actions kept them treading water, instead of making progress. This ‘busyness’ fills time with non-value-add actions”. More concerning, another 31% of respondents reported not completing important projects because when people are afraid of being discovered as frauds, they tend to avoid challenges that might expose them, often waiting until the last minute to try and push through to accomplish the task. This results in missed deadlines and incomplete or poorly completed work.
IS also prevents employees from reaching their true potential. In the Psychology Today article, The Reality of Imposter Syndrome, author Megan Dalla-Camina writes, “Perhaps the most limiting part of dealing with Imposter Syndrome is that it can limit our courage to go after new opportunities, explore potential areas of interest, and put ourselves out there in a meaningful way.” This has very real impacts on corporate objectives such as succession planning, strategy achievement, and overall workforce development.
What can HR do?
First, it’s important to realize that IS is more widespread than you might think. It is genderless and touches all levels of the organization, from your summer intern to your CEO. Frankly, it’s safe to assume that nearly every employee in your organization has felt some form of IS at some point in their careers.
The next step is to create awareness. Education is a good start, but the key to conquering IS is to create safe places where employees can speak openly about their struggles. Again according to Dalla-Camina, “There are a number of things I suggest that significantly help them move forward and deal with their fraudulent feelings: voicing their fears in coaching, with a mentor, or a safe peer group helps as it normalizes the feelings and ensures them that they aren’t alone.” Further, management training should include recognizing symptoms of IS such as withdrawal from meetings, not volunteering for challenging assignments, or not seeking promotions. Identifying who might be suffering from IS can help managers get those employees needed support.
Organizations are increasingly realizing the importance of mental health initiatives in the workplace. Impostor Syndrome awareness and support is a great place to start.