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5 Tips to Manage Impostor Syndrome at Work

Have you ever felt like a fraud despite how much you’ve achieved? Do any of your wins and accolades feel worthless? Does Simon & Garfunkel’s “Fakin’ It” play on repeat in your head?

If you’ve endured an extended period of self-doubt, then you’ve likely had a brush with impostor syndrome. It’s not specific to a job title or industry. Impostor syndrome affects:

  • leaders
  • academics
  • celebrities
  • influencers
  • professional athletes
  • groundbreaking thinkers
  • potentially everyone

Even Meryl Streep, a three-time Academy Award-winning actress, admitted to bouts of impostor syndrome in an interview for The Guardian. While we often hear about it affecting highly successful people, impostor syndrome can still severely limit performance.

Impostor syndrome can make exceptional employees stumble when they’re about to do something great. So how do you prevent it from limiting your workforce’s potential?

First, we’ll define impostor syndrome and identify its tells. Then we’ll examine how a strong strategy paired with the right HR tech helps manage the phenomenon and diffuse its influence.

What is impostor syndrome?

According to the Journal of General Internal Medicine (JGIM), impostor syndrome “describes high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor.”

5 Tips to Manage Impostor Syndrome at Work

Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, Georgia State University psychologists, first described the idea of imposter syndrome in their 1978 study of high-achieving women. They discovered despite repeated success over a five-year period, their subjects still identified themselves as frauds or unrealistically lucky.

Think of impostor syndrome as an extreme form of second-guessing yourself. It’s like if a carpenter questioned their ability to build a table despite publishing a step-by-step tutorial on crafting home furniture. People with impostor syndrome don’t connect their proven performance to competence. In some cases, praise might be perceived as further evidence they’re fooling everyone around them.

Impostor syndrome also aggravates normal setbacks. It makes receiving help feel like a sign of underperformance. Awards and kudos become traps. And top talent who would otherwise make great leaders fail before they give themselves a fighting chance.

Who experiences impostor syndrome?

Anyone can experience impostor syndrome. It’s not just an issue for people at the top of their game. It doesn’t discriminate. Even a new hire could believe they’ve failed shortly after signing their job offer. (Before their first day!)

Across more than 14,000 people in the studies reported in JGIM, some groups experienced impostor syndrome at a rate as high as 82%. The research also revealed it manifests in men and women, regardless of age. However, some studies found impostor syndrome was particularly high among people of color, and it usually coincides with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

Melody Wilding, a professional life coach, suggests impostor syndrome can be exacerbated by workplaces with:

  • little support
  • low diversity
  • high competition
  • poor communication
  • unclear expectations

Low transparency, minimal feedback and conflict between teams muddles the definition of “good” work and gives doubt an opening. Regular positive feedback won’t necessarily eliminate impostor syndrome, but a lack of praise can make its effect worse.

What are the signs of impostor syndrome in employees?

If Meryl Streep experienced impostor syndrome, you might wonder how it’s possible to identify and overcome it. The signs aren’t always obvious, but they’re not invisible either. With enough listening and feedback, you can identify the signals of employees dealing with imposter syndrome.

Employees who express a fear of being “found out” are likely wrestling with impostor syndrome. Those same workers might also say something like:

  • “They just gave me that award as a joke.”
  • “I’ll never be as good as everyone thinks I am.”
  • “I’m so far out of my league it’s not even funny.”
  • “My boss only gave me a shoutout because they feel bad for me.”
  • “I don’t deserve to work with my colleagues; I just hold the team back.”

Impostor syndrome can pull employees in two directions. On one hand, someone may turn down opportunities or defer decisions to those they believe are more qualified. Conversely, it can make some refuse help and push themselves to the point of burnout to prove their inner voice wrong.

More than 3 in 4 employees experience burnout, according to Gallup. How many exhausted themselves because they don’t believe they’re doing enough? Finding ways to manage impostor syndrome helps people avoid sabotaging their full potential.

How can HR address impostor syndrome at work?

Like bias, it’s impossible to completely get rid of impostor syndrome. But it is possible to limit its negative impact and help employees see their good work for what it really is.

Keep these five tips in mind as you identify and manage impostor syndrome in your workforce:

1. Promote development

It’s hard for anyone to consider themselves a fraud with evidence of their growth. Giving employees constant opportunities to hone and expand their skills could replace self-doubt with inspiration. It could also reframe asking for help as a chance to learn rather than weakness.

Consider investing in an easy-to-use learning management software to give employees anytime, anywhere access to:

  • relevant courses
  • engaging videos
  • microlearning
  • and more

2. Provide feedback

When employees receive feedback, it makes it clear their contribution matters. Mentoring, one-on-ones or group meetings are great for showing the value of an individual’s work. Study your team’s habits to figure out the best way to provide feedback.

And HR tech helps here, too! A powerful performance management tool makes it easy to:

  • provide regular feedback
  • conduct reviews
  • document growth
  • engage employees with clear and concise goals

3. Champion inclusion

If employees feel comfortable sharing their perspectives and ideas, it leaves a smaller window for self-doubt. Making your workplace more inclusive won’t happen overnight, but with persistence, it’s realistic to make employees feel gradually more comfortable.

Surveys are great for measuring satisfaction and discovering what engages employees most. Even more so when they’re accessible and simple to complete. With the right questions, they could even help identify those who wrestle with impostor syndrome.

At the same time, you should make it easy for employees to ask questions and find answers. Impostor syndrome only gets worse in a vacuum. Empower them with a tool to quickly find the help they need whenever they need it.

4. Recognize wins

Impostor syndrome devalues employees’ victories. Make recognition a piece of your communication strategy, and don’t avoid celebrating accomplishments of all sizes — even ongoing ones. At the same time, don’t inadvertently neglect some employees to uplift others. Every celebration should be a reminder of the team’s success.

5. Be realistic and transparent

It’s hard to reach goals without knowing what they are. Making expectations clear, concise and reasonable helps employees build confidence and acknowledge their progress. Ultimately, goals are motivators. And even when someone falls short, they shouldn’t be harshly punished for trying.

After all, failure is just as much of a learning opportunity — if not more so — than success.

Explore Paycom’s single software to learn how it empowers employees and helps them exceed their potential.


DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.