Halt Impostor Syndrome Before It Happens

Strong performers can start to doubt their own competence when managers fail to recognize the impacts of harmful workplace practices and policies.

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Isabela is an associate at a global management consulting firm, where she started working shortly after earning an MBA from a top business school. Her strong analytical and quantitative skills, coupled with her interpersonal and communication skills, have garnered Isabela high performance ratings. But despite a stellar performance record and clients’ and senior managers’ characterization of her as “at manager level,” Isabela did not apply for the manager position that recently became available.

Senior partners at the firm might be quick to conclude that Isabela didn’t apply because she has impostor syndrome — which refers to feelings of inadequacy that individuals experience, and a fear that others will discover that they do not belong in the positions that they occupy. They have likely read articles and attended professional development seminars that discussed employees’ susceptibility to experiencing impostor syndrome. Psychologists Pauline Clance and Susan Imes coined the term impostor syndrome to describe high-achieving women who feel incompetent and fear that others will eventually discover that they are a fraud and unfit for their position — a characterization that seems to fit Isabela.

But Isabela neither felt inadequate nor questioned her ability to manage — at least not initially. Rather, she decided not to apply because she had been denied a promotion the previous year. Her colleague Greg, who has not been with the company for as long and is less qualified, was promoted instead. Isabela concluded that perhaps she was not as intelligent, competent, and fit for the position as she believed.

The Real Problem: ‘Impostorization’

Isabela’s experience underscores the danger in assuming that such behaviors, including the decision not to apply for leadership positions, stem from self-perceived deficiencies. For Isabela and other employees, impostor syndrome is the presumed issue, but impostorization is the real problem.

Impostorization refers to the policies, practices, and seemingly innocuous interactions in the workplace that make (or intend to make) individuals question their intelligence, competence, and sense of belonging. The strategies that are often recommended to help individuals counter impostor syndrome — such as standing in power poses, reciting positive affirmations, and taking an inventory of past successes — have limited value in countering impostorization.

The strategies that are often recommended to help individuals counter impostor syndrome have limited value in countering impostorization.

This is not to say that employees such as Isabela do not experience impostor syndrome and that managers need not focus on providing the support that employees need to counter its effects. A recent MIT Sloan Management Review article provides valuable insights on how managers can identify impostor syndrome in employees and support them. But before managers assume that the issue is impostor syndrome, it is critical that they examine how the workplace might be inadvertently engaging in impostorization and triggering the feelings that they seek to address.

Certain policies, practices, and seemingly harmless interactions might unintentionally lead employees to question their intelligence, competence, and sense of belonging. The following are a few examples.

Biased promotion decisions. Employees like Isabela might have a high degree of self-esteem and self-efficacy — uncharacteristic of people with impostor syndrome — yet employer promotion decisions might trigger feelings of inadequacy. The company’s decision to promote a male employee over Isabela is consistent with the findings of a recent study by MIT Sloan School of Management professor Danielle Li and colleagues that found that male employees tend to receive higher ratings than female employees on questions related to “potential,” such as, “If given the opportunity, would this person make a good manager?” These ratings, which are intended to predict an individual’s performance, are often influenced by gender biases and assumptions about leaders, which often favor men. The study found that differences in ratings of people’s potential account for about 50% of the gender promotion gap. Promotion decisions based on factors unrelated to performance can trigger impostor syndrome among employees not selected. Left without feedback to the contrary, employees might attribute these decisions to their own perceived failings, such as a lack of qualifications or poor fit.

Glass cliff appointments. Ironically, women and people of color tend to be promoted at lower rates relative to their White male counterparts, yet the former are promoted more often to lead poorly performing organizations. Studies of promotion and the tenure of Fortune 500 CEOs found that minorities are more likely than White men to be appointed CEO of weak-performing companies, a phenomenon referred to as the glass cliff. As the entities continue to struggle, minority leaders are blamed. Glass cliff appointments might trigger impostor feelings among minorities — despite their prior records of success — by leading them to question their competence and to interpret organizational failings as a reflection of their own deficiencies rather than circumstances that are objectively challenging or a lack of support.

Interruptions and idea-stealing. Isabela arrived at her employer with confidence and a determination to excel. She often made recommendations and shared insights during meetings, but she observed a pattern: She would either get cut off when speaking, or her ideas would go unnoticed only to be presented minutes later by a colleague who was then praised for the novelty of the idea. While it is common for individuals to interrupt others, studies find that men interrupt women more often than they interrupt other men during meetings, and they get credit for regurgitating the ideas presented by women. Given the frequency of interruption in meetings, such behaviors might appear innocuous; their cumulative effect, however, could be impostorizing. The individuals who are interrupted and whose ideas go unnoticed might begin to question the value of their contributions. They might wonder whether they failed to articulate their ideas well enough and experience self-doubt, which in turn can decrease their participation and contributions.

Avoiding Impostorization

Avoiding triggering impostor syndrome is just as important as supporting employees who might be experiencing it. Managers can take the following steps to avoid it and, in the process, increase employees’ job satisfaction, organizational citizenship behaviors, motivation to lead, and retention.

Use objective criteria in promotion decisions. Unconscious biases can influence decisions based on subjective assessments. Ensure that opportunities for promotion are communicated to eligible employees, and use clear and explicit criteria when evaluating candidates. Consider providing specific feedback to employees who are denied promotions. Humans have an innate need to make sense of outcomes, and a promotion denial might be impostorizing when employees interpret the decision as a reflection of their inadequacy. Take the time to provide feedback not only on areas that the employee could work on to strengthen their competitiveness for the next promotion but also on what they are doing well. Balanced feedback can help avoid triggering impostor syndrome among employees by drawing attention to their strengths.

Avoiding triggering impostorization is just as important as supporting employees who might experience it.

Provide employees with sufficient resources. As the saying goes, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Whether stepping into the C-suite or an entry-level position, employees are more likely to thrive when they have organizational support. Similarly, failing to equip employees with the resources they need, including effective onboarding and mentoring, can set them up to fail. Failure can be an impostorizing experience by leading otherwise intelligent and competent employees to believe that they are inadequate rather than lacking organizational support.

Implement meeting norms that promote listening and idea-crediting. IDEO, a global design and innovation company, promotes creativity by encouraging employees to avoid criticizing others’ ideas; when they do so, a bell is rung. Establishing meeting norms — whether ringing a bell or instituting a “no interruptions” rule — might lead employees to actively listen, avoid cutting off colleagues who are speaking, and give credit where credit is due. Such norms could also help avoid impostorization by conveying to employees that they are heard, their contributions are recognized, and that they are integral members of the organization — in other words, that they are not impostors.

While much of the literature and discussions on impostor syndrome have focused on the individual, and strategies to counter its effects have taken a fix-the-individual approach, it is in fact organizations — through policies, practices, and seemingly innocuous interactions — that might be inadvertently triggering the problem. Managers must consider that the feelings and behaviors of employees might not be symptoms of impostor syndrome, but rather the consequences of impostorization.

Examine how the organizational culture — through bias, microaggressions, sexism, or racism, for example — might be impostorizing employees. If an employee with a promising performance record decides not to apply for a leadership position, is it because they believe they aren’t capable of leading — or because there is no evidence to suggest that the organization supports structural diversity? If an employee initially contributes to discussions and then begins to stay silent, is it because they are no longer confident — or because their ideas have been repeatedly ignored or credited to someone else? Is the problem really impostor syndrome, or impostorization? Create a culture of psychological safety and pose these questions to those who are most qualified to answer: your employees.


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