Impostor syndrome doesn’t discriminate against its victims. How can HR learn to keep it at bay both in the workplace and within themselves?
When was the last time you felt you ‘weren’t good enough’? Research suggests the majority of people reading this will be able recall a scenario from the not-so-distant past.
These feelings of inadequacy creep up at the most inconvenient times, and they can be difficult to shake. It’s called ‘impostor syndrome’, and I’d bet that if you said those two words to a room full of people, you’d be met with a sea of nodding heads.
Most people are all too familiar with the experience of feeling ill-equipped to fill their own shoes, or are struggling to internalise their own success. It’s estimated to affect 70 per cent of the population, yet when it takes seed inside us, it often feels as if we’re the only person to ever become enveloped by such a destabilising feeling.
Importantly, impostor syndrome and having low confidence levels aren’t synonymous. The latter is often ongoing and all-encompassing, whereas the former is often circumstantial – it hits in moments when you feel vulnerable, or you’re operating in a new environment. I’ll admit, as the newly appointed editor of this publication, I’m feeling it right now.
Unfortunately for me and millions of others, it doesn’t loosen its grip the higher you rise in the ranks. In fact, that’s often when it reaches its peak.
After being bestowed with a raft of different responsibilities and expectations, newly promoted or hired employees can quickly begin to doubt their abilities. While their history and expertise would suggest they’re exactly where they’re meant to be, it can take their brain longer to catch up.
This happened to senior HR professional and AHRI member Amelie MacLaren in her former role as the HR lead for a multinational technology and engineering company in the UK. She suddenly found herself leading the HR team responsible for looking after a company with over 700 employees.
“The feeling I had was that I was going to be ‘found out’ – that someone was about to discover I wasn’t meant to be [in that role],” says MacLaren.
“I would describe it as a gut feeling. It’s something that can come over you like a wave, often when you’re trying to sleep at night.”
At the time, MacLaren had over a decade of HR experience, and a bachelor and masters degree, yet she still didn’t feel good enough.
This is a common form of impostor syndrome, but it’s not the only one. Building off the research of clinical psychologists Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes – who coined the concept in 1978 – Dr Valerie Young, an internationally renowned expert on the syndrome, has identified five different types of impostor. She calls them the perfectionist, the soloist, the natural genius, the superman/woman and the expert (see end of article for more details).
Knowing which category you fall into means you can develop the right tools to manage it. We’ve included a helpful quiz at the end to help you figure out which pertains to you and your team.
This is especially pertinent for HR professionals right now, after a year in which many gained more influence. Now they’re helping to not only mitigate the short-term curve balls their organisations have been thrown, but they’re also playing a leading role in crafting policies and procedures to grow and advance the business.
Becoming more visible in an organisation can be both exciting and terrifying at the same time. Ensuring the good feelings prevail comes down to first understanding where the bad ones stem from.
When impostor syndrome takes grip
Self-assumed impostors hold themselves to unrealistic and unsustainable standards around competence, says Young. She recalls talking to an Ivy League PhD student who told her, “I feel like I should already know what I came here to learn.”
Anecdotes like this point to a larger cultural issue – an institution-wide notion that it’s better to feign knowledge than out yourself. People would rather frantically scribble down acronyms to look up later or mechanically nod their way through a conversation laden with industry jargon than admit to not knowing something. It’s cultures like this that allow impostor syndrome to fester.
Young’s end goal isn’t to eradicate these feelings, but to teach leaders and HR professionals to manage them. The best place to start, she says, is by normalising it.
“It’s about helping [employees] to not know something with confidence,” says Young.
“If you’re one of the few women, if you’re one of the few racial minorities, if you’re a person with an obvious disability or someone who is quite young – in other words, if you’re on the receiving end of stereotypes about competence or intelligence – it’s riskier and scarier to be the person in the room who says, ‘I don’t understand.’”
That’s why leaders need to be seen normalising a knowledge gap. It tells employees there won’t be any repercussions for not knowing something.
“I encourage people to contextualise the feeling. For example, we know people in medicine and STEM can feel [like impostors]. This isn’t about the individuals themselves, but it could be about the field they’re in.”
Using HR as an example, Young says if they worked at an engineering firm, it could be easy to compare themselves to those with professional engineering qualifications. While no-one would expect an HR professional to know everything about the ins and outs of a vehicle’s motor, for example, that pressure to be an ‘HR generalist’ with wide-ranging knowledge could easily push them to feel less qualified than their specialist peers.
“It doesn’t mean [the engineer] is more intelligent, capable or competent than the HR person. In society, we tend to devalue roles that involve people. Some organisations might value the chief information officer more than the HR manager – but they shouldn’t, especially with what we’ve seen during COVID-19.”
Business impacts of playing small
Even if you’re part of the lucky 30 per cent of people who don’t experience impostor syndrome, it’s still worth learning about it.
“Anyone who leads, manages, trains or mentors other people needs to be aware of it,” says Young. “It’s not a self-help topic. It’s a business imperative. The behaviours associated with impostor syndrome will have associated costs for the employee and the organisation.”
In an effort to protect ourselves from the fear and anxiety of ‘waiting to be found out’, we develop coping mechanisms, sometimes unconsciously, that might not align with our business’s objectives.
“One example would be flying under the radar,” says Young. “A person may not be innovative because they’re not willing to speak up or ask questions. They also might be hesitant to share their ideas. As a result, they might stay in a job they’ve long outgrown because they’re afraid to pop their head up.”
Another consequence is overworking or over-preparing for work.
“I’m not talking about good old-fashioned hard work. I mean the person who stays at work for longer because they feel they have to work harder than other people because they think they’re not innately as intelligent or capable,” says Young.
“It’s not a self-help topic. It’s a business imperative. The behaviours associated with impostor syndrome will have associated costs for the employee and the organisation.” – Dr Valerie Young, global Impostor Syndrome expert
It’s also common for people to turn to self-sabotaging behaviours.
“That might be [purposefully] turning up late to meetings or job-hopping. I read of a guy who would change jobs every four years because that’s about the time he felt people would be ‘onto him’. [Quitting his job] was his coping mechanism.”
Young says that remote work could perpetuate impostor feelings.
“Traditionally, those who were self-employed [were more susceptible], but now we’re seeing a lot of white-collar professionals working from home. I think that’s exacerbating those feelings because it’s easier to get in our own head. We’re not reading signals the same way.”
Pause, reframe, rewind
The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like one, says Young.
“I like to give people the tools to step back and contextualise the feeling.”
For example, if you don’t feel good enough to, say, edit your first ever HR publication – of course this is an entirely hypothetical example (it’s not) – you could say, “Of course I feel this way. I’ve never done this before.” Distancing the feeling from your actual competencies can do wonders.
Young calls this reframing. You hit pause on your thought and imagine how someone who wasn’t feeling like an impostor in that moment might reframe it.
“People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent, capable, competent than the rest of us. They just think different thoughts… we can learn from them.”
“I read of a guy who would change jobs every four years because that’s about the time he felt people would be ‘onto him’. [Quitting his job] was his coping mechanism.” – Dr Valerie Young, global Impostor Syndrome expert
Looking at impostor syndrome from an organisational perspective, Young says it should be part of management training and the onboarding process.
That could mean adding information to a new starter’s onboarding documents, she suggests, outlining what impostor syndrome is and normalising its presence in the workplace.
“Or you could include something that says ‘These are the five emotions you might have when starting a new job.’ It takes the shame out of it.
“It should also just be part of a conversation during performance review time. If you sense someone is holding back, that they’re not going for opportunities you think they’re perfectly qualified for, or they’re crushed by constructive criticism, then it might be worth bringing impostor syndrome up with them.
This kind of stuff all works towards creating a non-impostor culture in your workplace.
“Everybody loses when bright people play small,” says Young.
As trite as it sounds, you do just have to dive into things that scare you – and encourage your people to do the same.
“Take action and let your feelings catch up with you later.”
Five types of Imposter Syndrome
Based on her many years of research, Dr Valerie Young defines five types of impostor syndrome and offers solutions to manage them. Want to figure out which category you might sit in? Take this quick quiz, based on Young’s research, and then pop your mantra on a Post-It note on your desk or somewhere where you can see it every day.
“This is the person who feels like 99 out of 100 is a failure. They might forget to make one minor point in a presentation and beat themselves up for it. They want to be flawless every single time,” says Young.
Helping the Perfectionist: Don’t just tell someone to stop being a perfectionist. Appreciate the fact that this person cares deeply about their work while also consistently reinforcing that good enough is good enough because perfectionists can sometimes slow a team down.
Their mantra: Perfectionism inhibits success. Your perfectionism impacts others. Not everything deserves 100 per cent.
“This is the knowledge version of the perfectionist. It’s not about the quality of their work, but the quantity of their knowledge. They feel like they should always be reading more books, taking more courses, getting more certificates. This can hold people back from going for promotions because they never feel qualified enough.”
Helping the Expert: Praise this individual for their pursuit towards constant development while also making sure they’re aware they can’t possibly know everything. “It’s like someone trying to get to the end of the internet,” says Young. “It won’t ever happen.”
Their mantra: There is no end to knowledge. Competence means respecting your limitations. You don’t need to know everything; you just need to be smart enough to ask for help.
The Natural Genius
“These people think intelligence must be inherent. They expect to come out of the womb knowing how to be a leader or how to do advanced programming, or whatever it might be. The fact that they sometimes have to struggle to master something, in their minds, proves they’re an impostor.”
Helping the Natural Genius: Help this person to move beyond having a fixed mindset into a growth mindset. If they’re starting a new role, you could encourage them to keep a log of all their questions – acronyms they hear, new people they meet or processes they don’t understand – and make it clear that you’ll go through this with them at regular stages.
This helps to normalise a knowledge gap.
Their mantra: Effort trumps ability. Challenges are disguised opportunities. Real success always takes time.
“If these people are praised for something they received help for, they don’t tend to internalise it. They think it doesn’t count because they didn’t do it all on their own. They tend to take longer to complete tasks because they’re hesitant to ask for help.”
Helping the Soloist: Help them see the value of different resources – such as an extra pair of hands, more time or a bigger budget – and help them to identify which resources would be most useful for the task at hand. Ask them to take themselves out of the equation as they plan the resources needed to achieve a desired outcome – i.e ‘to do X, someone would first need Y and Z to get it done by the deadline.’
Their mantra: Competent people know how to ask for what they need. Competent people build on the work of other competent people. Smart people seek the help of those who know more than them.
“These people feel they must excel in all the different roles they play in their life. Not only in their career, but also as a parent, a partner and volunteer in the community etc, all at the same time.”
Helping the Superhuman: Remind them that in attempting to be ‘the best’ in every different role they’re required to do, they’re perpetuating their impostor feelings and constantly setting themselves up to fail.
They are also setting themselves up for burnout. Encourage them to slow down, set healthy boundaries and help them to learn how to say ‘no’ sometimes.
Their mantra: Delegating will free you and allow others to participate. Being a superhuman sends an unhealthy message to those who look up to you, at home or at work.
A version of this article first appeared in the March 2021 edition of HRM magazine.