Why imposter syndrome persists in the workplace, and how to deal with it

The majority of employees feel inadequate or unconfident in their capabilities at some point, but an inclusive workplace can help mediate those problems.

Why imposter syndrome persists in the workplace, and how to deal with it

Imposter syndrome--the feeling that you don't deserve your job despite all of your accomplishments in the workplace--is a psychological phenomenon that people across all industries and experience levels face. Some 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, according to research from the International Journal of Behavioral Science.

"Imposter syndrome is a feeling of inadequacy that makes you think that you're not good enough or won't succeed," said Sam Parr, founder and CEO of The Hustle. Essentially an accumulation of insecurities, imposter syndrome is an easy and understandable trap to fall into--particularly in a high-profile tech job.

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The factors contributing to imposter syndrome are different for everyone, however. "Everything from anxiety, depression--there's even correlations with graduate degrees or family expectations," said Lauren Romansky, vice president of HR at Gartner. In the workplace, imposter syndrome often arises because employees don't see the positive qualities in themselves that their coworkers or superiors might see, especially if positive feedback isn't often expressed, added Romansky.

However unpleasant, "these feelings are completely natural," said Parr. "Everyone has them--even the people you admire most." In fact, employees at major companies like Expedia, Salesforce, and Amazon have the highest rates of imposter syndrome, according to a recent report from Blind.

Imposter syndrome as a barrier for productivity

Not only can imposter syndrome be a negative force on someone's attitude and mind, it can also impact their work. Feelings of inadequacy often end up making people believe in their insecurities, forcing their fears into realities.

This sometimes results in employees leaving their jobs and even their specific industries as a whole, said Romansky. "We've certainly seen turnover, as well as individuals changing, not just careers, but really entire career paths or industries who begin to feel that pressure full on," added Romansky. These employees end up folding under the pressure, unsure of how to handle those feelings of being an imposter, rather than trying to find possible solutions.

"It slows people down, big time. They look to others for feedback and advice because they have doubts in their own ideas or skills," said Parr. "What I tell them is: a) They're good enough, b) Nearly every mistake is reversible, so don't worry about screwing up, and c) This whole internet thing, it's still very new, so everyone involved is really just figuring it out as they go. The 'experts' are rarely more experienced than they are."

What individuals can do

Surrounding influences fuel imposter syndrome, according to Parr. "Press and awards contribute greatly: '30 Under 30' awards, etc. It's so easy now to compare yourself to others," Parr said. "Also, Instagram. People think when they see people getting awards or living the dream on Instagram, that these people are automatically legit. They're not. Most people who win awards feel the same imposter syndrome. And the majority of people living the dream on Instagram are miserable and faking it."

Individuals must recognize that scrolling through social media places them on the outside looking in. "You can beat imposter syndrome by acknowledging that Instagram people and award winners aren't truly feeling what they project. And by accepting that no one knows what they are doing," said Parr. "Also, embracing a 'Why not me?' or 'Well, why can't I?' attitude helps immensely. The default feeling should be: 'If physics allows it, then there's no reason why I can't do something.'"

Individuals also need to take the initiative to place themselves in supportive environments, said Romansky. "Mentorship is important. If you have somebody who's willing to step in and give you those pep talks as well as actually build your competencies and support your decisions, those relationships are worth their weight in gold," Romansky noted.

Additionally, individuals can seek out organizations that hire employees similar to themselves in some way, Romansky said. "Work at an organization where you can see people like you," she said. "That can give individuals a lot more confidence that they are not fraudulent, they are not inauthentic, or pretending. This lets individuals see people similar to themselves making strides and succeeding."

What organizations must do

While individuals can try and place themselves in supportive companies, that is much easier said than done. First of all, most people don't have the luxury of choosing between a slew of positions, and most companies aren't as cognizant of imposter syndrome or employee needs as they should be.

"[Companies] can't just have an average score of inclusion across their team," said Romansky. Organizations can be more inclusive by "making sure no one is left behind; supporting team growth; fostering team accountability; managing networks," she said. "But, [business leaders] also need to have interpersonal integrity and be able to manage conflict productively. There's some element of fairness and stability required in leaders to really support a team environment where people can be themselves."

Leaders and coworkers also need to encourage affirmation in the workplace and instill confidence in one another that might be lacking in the day to day.

Overall, imposter syndrome is a result of an employee not feeling supported. Organizations must work to "establish a culture of psychological safety, belonging, and authentic leadership, where individuals might be able to bring that type of concern to their manager and not feel penalized because of it," said Romansky.

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Image: iStockphoto/jacoblund