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.
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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.