Enter your name & email below to get started.
We value your privacy and will not share your information.
By Valerie Young, Ed.D
Companies as well as individuals pay a high price when achievers secretly feel they have fooled others about their talents. When qualified workers fear risks, get caught in the “expert trap,” and are prone to perfectionism and procrastination, there’s a leak in the corporations human resources pool.
Waste in the Workplace
The Impostor Syndrome, although experienced on an individual level, can and does interfere with the job effectiveness, productivity and advancement potential of those encumbered by it. This should be of great concern to managers because it affects a company’s greatest resource – its employees. The syndrome can become an expensive problem when it results in:
In addition, employees caught in the Impostor Syndrome are also more likely to see constructive criticism as proof of their ineptitude, rather than use it to improve their skills or increase their knowledge. And, in turn, they are not as motivated by praise and positive feedback because they dismiss compliments, crediting their accomplishments to luck, charm ( “they’re just saying that because they like me”) and/or the effort of others (if someone else helped, the achievement doesn’t count).
From Loss to Profit
You, as a manager, should try to assess the extent to which the impostor phenomenon exists in your company, and also try to determine how your organization’s corporate culture may contribute to the problem. This is an issue, which must be handled sensitively; it would be threatening and counterproductive to call a meeting and ask people who feel they’re faking their way through their jobs to raise their hands.
One corporate vice president used an informal, non-accusatory approach that prompted people to respond honestly. Afte
r passing around an article on the Impostor Syndrome, he followed up with one-to-one chats, saying, “Hey, I thought that article was on target. What do you think?” Among other things, he discovered that his assistant often put more effort into a task than it warranted. For instance, when asked to jot down a few thoughts on an upcoming agenda topic, she prepared a letter-perfect full report. Her perfectionism wasted time and talent that could have been used more productively.
Other managers have distributed the assessment tools Clance and Imes included in The Impostor Phenomenon, which were designed to measure the degree to which individuals experience “faking” feelings. To ensure candor and cooperation, such tools should be completed anonymously, voluntarily, and participants should be told why they are being given the tool and how you will use the data.
Managers, with staff help, can also develop an organizational profile, which reflects how employees experience their
company’s “achievement climate.” This should be an honest examination of the ways management may be contributing to the problem. (In many cases, it is less threatening and more productive for an experienced consultant to gather this information and follow up with actions that fit the organization’s specific needs.)
Questions to explore include:
1) How does your organization view mistakes, unsuccessful risks, failure and being wrong? Are mistakes and failures considered human and inevitable? Are employees encouraged to learn from mistakes and failures, or are they penalized for them? Do employees have the right to be wrong on occasion, to have an “off’ day or to work at honing less-developed skills? Are they encouraged to collaborate on enterprises so that consequences of risks are shared?
2) Is asking for help – or even information – considered a sign of weakness or a legitimate request? Is admitting a g
ap in knowledge seen as normal and necessary for learning, or a sign of incompetence? Is perfectionism the unspoken rule?
To take your inquiry one step further, consider whether your organization recognizes and addresses the uniqueness of women’s experience in the workplace. Research has shown that some women lower their expectations for future successes following a setback; do supervisors encourage and support them at these times? And, because people are prone to self-doubts in new situations, particularly when pioneering in an area, are women who are the first in a department or job given appropriate training and support? In addition, is your organization aware of the “outsider” status many women in non-traditional jobs experience, and the pressures on women to be model representatives of their sex?
Because of sexism and the credibility gap created by societal assumptions about women’s capabilities and appropriate roles, women must outperform or collect more credentials than their male counterparts in order to succeed. Is your company sy
mpathetic to the ways sex-role stereotyping reinforces women’s insecurities about their abilities and forces them to continually prove their competence in a male-dominated business world? Does management understand and acknowledge the various ways people discount, ignore or trivialize women’s accomplishments? Is there an attitude among some supervisors that women must “earn” the right to hold their jobs?
Because old attitudes about female roles and talents die hard, women are often treated too harshly. In your organization, are women’s mistakes or weak spots scrutinized more closely or judged more severely? Are male and female supervisors unnecessarily hard on women staffers to prove that they’re not catering to women? Are women given more challenging assignments tha
n men to “test” their capabilities?
For the same reason, women may be handled gingerly – with “kid gloves.” In your company, are they unconsciously discouraged from taking risks, given less challenging assignments or prematurely “rescued” from tough assignments? Is criticism soft-pedaled or withheld for fear of upsetting female employees?
And does your company have an unspoken but obvious double standard? Is making a mistake or getting egg on one’s face more acceptable for male than female employees? Is tooting one’s own horn perceived differently when done by men and w
omen? Is asking for assistance or information taken as a sign of a woman’s incompetence? Is the poor performance of one woman, especially if she is the first in her position, considered evidence that a woman can’t handle the job?
A Plan for Action
If an honest appraisal of your organization uncovered some areas needing improvement, and your goal is to create a work environment for all your employees, which is both supportive and conducive to productivity, consider making some of the following changes. You and other managers who want to reduce the negative impact of the Im
postor Syndrome on your organization can:
Finally, for any effort to be lasting and profitable, more substantive and systemic changes need to occur. My suggestions: set up a task force to study and make recommendations about how to address Impostor Syndrome problems; start programs to teach managers how to recognize and counteract the negative impact of the syndrome; provide training in how to fully develop and use female employees’ capabilities; promote professional women’s networks; make an organizational commitment to day care; conduct in-house training programs for promising employees who need to build their confidence; and establish a formal or informal mentor system.
It is up to managers and companies – and in their best interests – to develop and support those intelligent, talented employees who, despite proof to the contrary, continue to doubt their competence. Conquer the Impostor Syndrome, and you will create a brighter, more profitable work environment.
I decided to take the Work @ What You Love Workshop and also work one-on-one with Valerie. The workshop explored so many unusual and unexpected solutions to my specific questions. I made so many new connections to what clearly works for me in crea...