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Imposter phenomenon: how you can identify and overcome it

HRM breaks down what imposter phenomenon is, who it affects and how you can overcome it organisationally and individually.

If you’ve ever felt guilt over a salary increase, or a sinking dread after a well-earned promotion, then chances are you’re intimately familiar with the imposter phenomenon.

“It’s essentially a feeling of intellectual phoniness despite evidence to the contrary,” says academic and founder of Braver Smarter Stronger Dr Terri Simpkin, who has researched the area for years. She talked to HRM ahead of an AHRI Hobart network forum next month.

“It’s not about people seeking validation, or fishing for compliments. It’s a genuine sense of inadequacy despite the fact that you have a track record of success.”

Imposter phenomenon is not only an unfortunate reality for a few individuals, it actively harms whole organisations. It could be the unseen obstacle in your diversity program, or the hidden drag on your performance management. In other words, imposter phenomenon is a business issue, and one that can be overcome.

Don’t call it a syndrome

I’ve been careful use to use the word ‘phenomenon’ rather than something that implies the experience is incurable or an intrinsic personality trait. There’s a reason for that. “It’s not a syndrome, it’s a phenomenon that’s situational,” explains Simpkin.

The stereotype we might hold of a hardworking but chronically shy and deferential coworker – who is just psychologically wired that way – is incorrect. Someone who  feels they’re an imposter at work may experience total confidence at home, or in a different organisation.

But while anyone can experience imposter phenomenon – no matter their gender, sexuality, ethnicity or any other distinguishing trait – that doesn’t mean everyone experiences it in the same way.

Not all imposters are equal

The first study of the phenomenon, conducted by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes and published in 1978, focused on high-achieving women. Simpkin says this might be why we tend to link the phenomenon with women despite strong doubts over whether that’s appropriate.

“The jury is still out on how it actually affects men and women, and whether it affects them differently. Anecdotally, I’m finding that both do experience it,” says Simpkin.

The direction of Simpkin’s work is that women experience it differently to men, not necessarily in frequency or prevalence. And that they also have a range of societal and workplace factors that change their experience.

“When you take a sense of not feeling good enough, and expecting at any point in time someone is going to tap you on the shoulder and say ‘you don’t deserve to be here’ – when women are feeling like that and are also seeing a lack of women in senior leadership, a lack of women on boards, a gender pay gap; then it adds an extra element of confirmation.”

Simpkin’ logic is sound, and saddening. If the remedy for imposter phenomenon is tangible proof that it’s only an internal feeling, then looking around the leadership table and realising you’re the only woman would strike you as evidence of the opposite. So too would a man being paid more than you for the exact same job.

“[People experiencing imposter phenomenon] will make the story true for them. They will take evidence and they will twist it to make their own view of the world correct. Because the last thing the imposter wants is to be wrong, and to be seen to be wrong,” says Simpkin.

Nothing metastasizes feelings of being an imposter more than being the odd one out. In Simpkin’ research, it’s very common for women to tell her that their negative sense of themselves is confirmed by their relatively unique position.

Counteracting imposter phenomenon organisationally

Imposter phenomenon has to be dealt with both individually and in a wider sense. You have to dismantle institutional evidence that suggests some groups are less valued than others.

“You need things such as pay transparency, a different approach to performance management, and packages for valuing people as equals in the workplace on a range of different benefits,” says Simpkin.

Beyond that, it’s important to make sure that top performing people have more than just opportunities to move into senior levels. In Simpkin’ research into women in STEM occupations, 89 per cent of women either experience imposter phenomenon at moderate levels or frequently. “You have to ask yourself, ‘How is this impacting our capacity to support talent?’

“People experiencing the phenomenon will not put themselves forward [for advancement] because it makes them visible. If we’re talking about performance management and succession planning, there needs to be more active attempts to pursue those individuals and collect the evidence that explains why it is that they should put themselves forward,” says Simpkin.

“There’s an awful lot of talent that is being underutilised for fear of being exposed as fakes.”

To deal with imposter phenomenon at an organisational level you should consider:

  • Initiatives that eliminate pay gaps between different groups
  • Diversity in senior roles
  • Succession planning that doesn’t rely on individual ambition
  • Implementing an evidence-based system of career advancement that seeks out the best candidates
  • Rethinking performance management. Make sure it’s evidence based (more on this below)

How to identify imposter phenomenon

People experiencing imposter phenomenon will externalise their successes, and internalise their failures. It’s a good idea to train managers to look for this in a performance review. A key indicator is if an employee’s language is dismissive of praise. There are a couple ways this can manifest, explains Simpkin.

  1. They dismiss compliments about their achievements and push the praise onto other people – instead giving the credit to their team, for instance.
  2. Attributing their individual success to luck or chance. A typical phrase might include “I was the right person at the right time”.
  3. Dismissing the notion of the success altogether. An example would be a highly accomplished new recruit saying, “I must have been the least worst person in the candidate pool”.

Importantly, the language has to be ongoing and consistent. Occasional modesty is normal; sometimes it’s the polite thing to do, says Simpkin.

“However when you start hearing it not just once or twice, but on a habitual level, then you can start to think ‘Well actually this person isn’t able to internalise their own successes.’”

Another component is body language. People experiencing imposter phenomenon have reported to Simpkin that their toes curl when they think about admiration. They will literally put their hands up when being praised, as if they could physically block the incoming compliment. And they will openly nod along to someone listing their faults or the shortcomings of their work.

Dealing with imposter phenomenon on an individual level

There is the temptation to want people who experience an internal difficulty, like imposter phenomenon, to “just get over it”. That attitude however is not just unrealistic, it’s also damaging. So once you’ve identified that an employee might be experiencing imposter phenomenon, what should you do?

Simpkin outlines some principles, firstly some things you should avoid.

  • Do not diagnose them. This is not a syndrome, a medical condition or a psychiatric issue. It’s something that’s situational.
  • Make sure the person you think has imposter phenomenon respects the person in charge of their performance review (usually their manager). If they view them as unqualified to give feedback, they can use that to rationalise away any praise.
  • Simarilly, make sure the manager has a clear idea of the employees’ responsibilities. If they don’t have proper visibility over their work, the employee will not trust the assessment.

And here are things you should do.

  • Sit down in a mentoring or managerial relationship and have an unemotional, highly evidence-based discussion around the person’s performance. Provide external validation they cannot easily sweep away.
  • One of the worst things a manager can say is something like: “you’re always good”, or “you’ll be fabulous at this project, you always are”. These sets up an expectation that this person must always excell, and triggers their fear of being outed as an imposter.
  • Finally, it can be very helpful for people to know that feeling like an imposter is very common. Knowing that you’re not the only one is not only comforting, it’s evidence that you’re not an imposter at all.

While changing the way your organisation operates because of a single phenomenon might seem like a lot of work, there are lots of other reasons to strive for equality and implement evidence based performance management. In truth, all of the above should be helpful to every employee.

Don’t we all sometimes feel like imposters?

If you would like take part in Dr Terri Simpkin’s research, you can fill out this questionnaire.

Learn how you can overcome the imposter syndrome with Dr Terri Simpkin on Thursday 1 November in Hobart. Registration closes 30 October.

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