How imposter syndrome can help us make workplaces better

More than 70% of people are affected by workplace imposter syndrome: the feeling that you don’t deserve your job and aren’t qualified, no matter your accomplishments. It can be overwhelming at the beginning of a new career, whether it’s your first job after graduation, a career change, or returning to work after a break.

Imposter syndrome is more than anxious thoughts. Other associated feelings and behaviors include:

        • Holding back from taking risks
        • Perfectionist tendencies
        • Comparing yourself to others in a negative way
        • Feeling like a fraud
        • The overwhelming feeling of lagging behind your peers
        • A need to mask your vulnerability or authenticity
        • Being afraid to ask questions
        • Feeling overwhelmed
        • Struggling with work-life balance
        • Tying your career success to your worth
        • Being unsure of the career path you want to be on

Imposter syndrome was conceptualized by psychologists in the 1970s who theorized it mainly affected high-achieving women. More recent research has revealed that imposter syndrome can be experienced by anyone, though it is more prevalent in high achievers.

What causes workplace imposter syndrome?

Even though imposter syndrome can affect anyone, certain factors may exacerbate its effects.

Family Environment

Growing up in an environment that emphasizes achievements can create the circumstances for imposter syndrome later in life, especially if doing well in school or activities were linked to praise and worth. Children can also develop imposter syndrome when being raised by controlling or overprotective parents or if they grew up in an environment full of conflict with minimal support.

Gender and Racial Stereotypes

One reason women and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) may disproportionately experience imposter syndrome is a disconnect from white-male-dominated company culture. A lack of representation of BIPOC and women at upper levels — especially management — can create doubts about their future success in the company. They may also experience more bias at work, leading to greater feelings of inadequacy and a lack of confidence.

Personality and Mental Health

Perfectionist tendencies, neuroticism, and social anxiety have been linked to imposter syndrome. People with these traits may experience greater feelings of incompetence and inadequacy, especially in social situations. Perfectionism is a characteristic of imposter syndrome and creates expectations to live up to overly high standards.

New Situations

Imposter syndrome is most common when someone starts something new or is in a transition period. Having little experience in the situation, being unfamiliar with the new structure, and internal or outside pressure to succeed all contribute to feelings of inadequacy.

A woman sits at a table and looks at a binder with her head in her heads in a stressed manner.

Imposter syndrome can create feelings of self-doubt, being overwhelmed, and feeling like you’re behind in your work or development.

How can employers make their workplaces more supportive?

Attracting new employees and a growing workforce are signs of a healthy company. But that constant stream of new faces may be hiding feelings of worry and inadequacy, especially if they’re from a recent campus recruitment campaign. How do you set up new hires for success and minimize their imposter syndrome?

Have open initial conversations

Establish a rapport with new employees from the beginning. This will contribute to improved feelings of inclusion and belonging and create a safe space to ask for help.

Be authentic and honest about past and current struggles

New hires don’t see all the work it took for current employees to get where they are now — all they see are successful people who have been at the company longer than they have. Sharing struggles pulls back the curtain of perfection and can help manage expectations. It will also make new employees more comfortable asking for advice if they know someone else has been through what they’re experiencing now.

Have regular check-ins

Create opportunities for new employees to connect, ask questions, and even be mentored or guided. Knowing that someone else has their back can improve their self-confidence and make them less afraid of failure and taking risks.

Prepare your supervisors and management appropriately

Is your leadership team equipped to support new hires, especially if this is a new focus for your company? Provide training and create policies about how to successfully onboard new employees and help them throughout their time at the company. This will manage expectations about how much is required and provide a framework for interactions like check-ins and coffee chats.

You can use the Knockri assessment to evaluate team leads and managers’ leadership skills and see who would be the best fit to onboard and mentor new hires.

Give them ownership of their work

Show new hires that you trust and have confidence in them. That doesn’t mean giving them a big project and expecting them to complete it on their own: support them if they need it, but also let them know that they are capable of success and were hired for a reason.

Assess skill gaps and offer compensation for education

Any new job is a chance for growth and further learning. Don’t expect new hires to know everything immediately or know where to find helpful resources. Encourage them to develop their knowledge and compensate them for taking courses or attending conferences to level up their skills.

Knockri evaluates skills and behaviors and provides a skill breakdown, so you know where candidates’ strengths and weaknesses lie. Use this information to inform further training and learn where new hires may need more support. Book a demo today to learn more.

Have a diverse team

When employees are starting in an industry where they feel underrepresented, having colleagues and leaders similar to them is crucial. Seeing someone who looks like them or comes from a similar upbringing or background be successful is inspiring and can give them more confidence to succeed.

Here are some behavioral skills employers should have to support these practices:

        • authentic leadership
        • collaboration
        • empathy
        • communication

How do I deal with my workplace imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is designed to make you feel powerless and unworthy of asking for help or improving. In a new workplace of unfamiliar faces, overcoming your imposter syndrome is even more difficult. Here are some strategies to move past the feelings of inadequacy and find success.

Turn your anxious thoughts into questions

Use your imposter syndrome as a springboard for questions you might have. Worrying about “what if I formatted this report wrong and people think I’m unqualified?” can instead be an opportunity to ask about company templates, style guides, and best practices.

Instead of agonizing over making a mistake, ask about the review process for projects. Look at your imposter syndrome as an opportunity to learn more about the fine details of your role in the workplace.

Book conversations and meetings for clarification

No matter how much experience you have, being in a new situation will always create questions and confusion. But you don’t work alone — reach out to your colleagues and supervisors to schedule meetings and coffee chats. This will help you familiarize yourself with how the company works and get answers to questions about your work.

Develop a growth mindset

No matter how high you rise in your career, there is always more to learn or update yourself. Ask your supervisor or colleagues about areas to work on and pay attention to career trends to know what skills you might need in the near future. Research courses, conferences, or workshops to help you fill these gaps.

Recognize your accomplishments, no matter how small

Take note of and be proud of your achievements. This will boost your overall confidence and remind you how capable you are.

Ask more experienced colleagues about their struggles

No matter how experienced someone may be, they have had to overcome obstacles in their careers. Make the time to chat with colleagues about problems they’ve faced and how they moved past them — you’ll gain valuable tips for dealing with your own struggles and remind yourself that you aren’t alone in them.

Have empathy for yourself

Be gentle with your learning curve, and remember that you’re a work in progress. It might be difficult not to dwell on hiccups and mistakes, but remember that you’re learning as you go and will know more next time.

Don’t overwork yourself

Take breaks if you need to. Sometimes the best strategy for dealing with a problem is to step away for a few hours or sleep on it so you can come back refreshed and with a new angle. Imposter syndrome can make you feel like a failure if you’re not successful immediately, but remember that a healthy work-life balance is key to success.

Remember why you were hired

You might feel incompetent or out of your depth at a new job, but remember that there was a reason you were hired. Someone saw your potential and thought you would be a good fit for the role. If possible, ask the hiring manager what stood out to them in your application or interview and note it.

Knockri employee assessment tests are focused on merit. Higher scores correlate to better on-the-job performance, so you can be confident that successful candidates are ready and fit your role despite the feelings of imposter syndrome.

Here are some behavioral skills you should have to help overcome imposter syndrome:

        • growth mindset
        • communication
        • initiative
        • resilience

Can imposter syndrome be a strength?

Imposter syndrome makes you doubt your competence — but it doesn’t have anything to do with your actual competence. Research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has found that imposter syndrome can have hidden benefits for those who suffer from it.

The study followed 160 employees from an investment solutions company and found that those who suffer from imposter syndrome were rated higher for interpersonal skills. Supervisors found those with imposter syndrome were better at helping others, cooperating, and encouraging others.

A subsequent study of medical students found that those with imposter syndrome had better bedside manner. A final study involving chatting with a hiring manager saw applicants with imposter syndrome were more engaged with the conversation.

Three people gather around a laptop on a table: one sitting, one standing, and one in a wheelchair.
People suffering from imposter syndrome can exhibit better interpersonal skills like cooperation and helping others.

Instead of lowering performance, imposter syndrome may boost interpersonal communication and provide motivation to perform better. Even though imposter syndrome creates doubt, anxiety, and other negative behaviors, it’s important to remember that it can also be a source of strength.

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