How to Help High Achievers Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Managers can help employees turn fears into fleeting thoughts as opposed to permanent restraints.

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Recently, we met a woman who told us the story of how she grew up on a Native American reservation and had to drop out of high school to care for her younger siblings. In her early 20s, she went back to school, where she excelled. Eventually, she went to dental school and earned four postsecondary degrees.

“Coming from my very challenging childhood, it felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there — like someone had made a mistake in admitting me to dental school, because I didn’t feel as smart as those around me,” she told us. Yet, while completing her degree, one of her professors encouraged her to pursue a specialty — a lucrative opportunity that was well within her capabilities — but she felt it was beyond her reach. Instead, she practiced as a general dentist, working for a government agency that provided care in rural communities (also a respected role, but not her initial career aspiration). Although it took a decade, she eventually overcame her initial self-doubt, developed a specialization in pediatric dentistry, and became an esteemed clinical professor in her field. Today, she helps students achieve their full potential — especially those who, like her younger self, doubt their capabilities and potential despite indications otherwise.

Many high-achieving people we know describe similar feelings of self-doubt. They’re plagued by a nagging sense that, despite their objective successes, they aren’t as capable as others believe. They have trouble attributing their high performance to their competence, and instead credit luck, tokenism, accident, or the help of others. In her book Lean In, former Meta chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg described the feeling this way: “Every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”

In the late 1970s, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who studied high-achieving professional women, gave this feeling the name imposter syndrome and described it as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” unaffected by evidence to the contrary. A KPMG survey of 750 female executives in 2020 found that this feeling persists: Seventy-five percent reported experiencing imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. Eighty-one percent said they think that compared with men, they put more pressure on themselves not to fail.

Other scholarship has identified the feeling in both men and women and among many ethnic and racial groups. As workplaces strive toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, high-achieving employees who belong to a minority or marginalized group — across gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and/or economic class categories — are particularly at risk of suffering from imposter syndrome, which can impair well-being and inhibit performance. Being the “one and only” can make it especially hard for people of color and women to feel like they belong. A newly minted Black female executive, for example, will likely be the only person from her demographic in the role at her company, given that only 1.7% of executive and senior-level officials and managers are Black women nationwide. (There are even fewer Hispanic and Native American women — 1.57% and 0.01%, respectively.)

We asked ourselves: How can managers identify imposter syndrome? And what can they do to ameliorate its negative impacts on employees while implementing organizational efforts to develop diverse and high-merit future leaders?

To retain high achievers, managers need to understand and respond to their unique challenges, of which imposter syndrome can be one. And to reach DEI goals, hiring diverse people is not enough; companies need to design initiatives that reduce the attrition of employees of color and women and keep employees who are high achieving and underrepresented. Fortunately, research shows that the negative effects of imposter syndrome can be mitigated through organizational and social support.

Finding Imposter Syndrome in Your Organization

There are clues that managers can look for to try to figure out which of their employees might be dealing with a false sense of fraud — rooted in a misestimation of their own competence.

In conversations, people have described this worry to us as “paralyzing.” Imposter syndrome can cause emotional exhaustion, burnout, work-family conflict, decreased job satisfaction, and low self-esteem in an individual who had been high achieving and very competent in their schooling and previous jobs. Ironically, employees with high levels of merit are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome. For example, about 30% of medical residents experience it. Self-doubt can arise when people enter challenging new roles or in the wake of personal success.

There are often behavioral patterns indicative of imposter syndrome. Does an employee set unrealistically high standards for herself? Is he harshly critical of his own performance? Is she more likely to remember mistakes than accomplishments? These might be signs of maladaptive perfectionism. Managers can look for a discrepancy between employees’ self-evaluations and external evaluations and their difficulty accepting praise.

People experiencing imposter syndrome are more likely to exhibit anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Common symptoms are checking that things are correct more than necessary and feeling anxious when routines or processes are disrupted. When given a challenging new task, an employee experiencing imposter syndrome will often either over-prepare for the task or procrastinate initially and then prepare in a frenzy.

Studies have found that in situations where outcomes are uncertain, people experiencing imposter syndrome may use self-handicapping behavior, actively constructing impediments that will lower their chances at success, such as not studying before a test or strategically reducing effort. That way, the failure doesn’t reflect on their intelligence but can be attributed to another cause. In a classic study of fear of failure and fear of success that used a game of darts, for instance, participants with high levels of fear either stood so close to the dartboard that they could not miss, or so far away that they could not hit it. But to be able to build skills and grow in a career, people need to be able to take appropriate risks.

Psychologists have called imposter syndrome “an inner barrier to career development” because it stymies job planning, professional striving, and the motivation to lead. Employees who are highly competent but hesitant to take on new challenges and expand their responsibilities often have continuance commitment: They fear they will lose more than they will gain, which makes them afraid to change, even if it means a promotion.

What Managers Can Do

There are several concrete steps managers can take to support an employee experiencing imposter syndrome. These steps can help relieve the hardship it causes and increase the employee’s capacity to perform their job well — and at their actual level of capability.

Recommendation: Talk about it.

Managers should anticipate imposter syndrome among their high-achieving employees and initiate conversations about it. Employees may be reluctant to disclose their beliefs that they are “imposters” because of fear of negative social or professional repercussions, and they may not know that their feelings are commonly felt by others. It can be helpful for employees to hear that others who have risen to leadership roles have experienced feelings of doubt, thinking they might not have what it takes or believing they have been overestimated in their abilities.

Managers should anticipate imposter syndrome among their high-achieving employees and initiate conversations about it.

Managers can take employees through a structured list of questions to determine whether they are experiencing imposter syndrome. Drawing from the research of MIT Sloan professor Basima Tewfik, questions could include the following:

  • At work, do people important to you think you are more capable than you think you are?
  • At work, do others think you have more knowledge or ability than you think you do?
  • At work, do other people see you more positively than you think your capabilities warrant?
  • At work, have you received greater recognition from others than you think you merit?
  • At work, do you think you are not as qualified as others think you are?

Those who agree with these statements are more likely to be experiencing imposter syndrome and may be in need of support.

Recommendation: Reframe “syndrome” as “thoughts.”

We’ve been using the term imposter syndrome because it is the most common name for the thoughts related to feeling like an intellectual fraud despite high achievement and objective success. But it isn’t a psychological diagnosis. In fact, we might all be better off thinking of it as fleeting thoughts and not a fixed mindset. Thoughts and feelings don’t have to be long term; indeed, often they are not.

Managers and employees can together come up with strategies to decrease the frequency and consistency of those thoughts. Are there certain circumstances that trigger fraudulent feelings? An action plan, including concrete steps like seeking professional coaching, might be helpful to have in place for when triggers occur.

Recommendation: Challenge and then reframe imposter thoughts.

In a relationship of trust, employees and their managers have an opportunity to confront imposter thoughts. The manager can reiterate that they are thoughts, not facts, and not a true representation of competence, ability, or knowledge.

If imposter thoughts are arising in a certain domain, focus the conversation on an alternative area or domain where the employee feels more secure. For example, if an employee is worried about his presentation skills, emphasize the content that is being presented instead and suggest that he reflect on his competence in coming up with good ideas. Focusing on a competency can help build confidence.

Managers can also let employees know that imposter thoughts are not inherently self-damaging or self-destructive. Indeed, in some cases, if defanged and reframed, these thoughts can become useful: They might help a person recognize what skills they need to invest in. In a BBC article about imposter syndrome, a woman who became CEO of a tech company talked about how her imposter thoughts still come up sometimes. “But I’ve learned to reframe the message,” she told the BBC. “It is now my advocate, not my adversary, challenging me to move forward out of my comfort zone.”

Recommendation: Help with career planning.

Employees who are experiencing imposter thoughts may have a false sense of their potential that negatively impacts how they imagine their own futures. Studies also show that people experiencing imposter syndrome are less likely to engage in career planning than others. However, employees who think about their careers, feel that they have some control over their career trajectory, and are confident in their ability to meet goals tend to be happier and more productive.

Talking to employees about their professional trajectory and providing a more positive and realistic evaluation of their abilities can be beneficial. Managers can help them think actively about creating career goals, exploring options and opportunities, and crafting a multistep plan to reach those objectives. Managers can offer support as employees develop their career decision-making skills and self-efficacy beliefs, which are their internal judgments of their abilities to attain goals.

Recommendation: Challenge stereotypes about what constitutes competence.

Consider what the prototype of a high-performing leader is in your industry. Driven and assertive? Works long hours? Tall? Deep voice? Salt-and-pepper hair?

People’s perceptions of inadequacy when experiencing imposter thoughts may be rooted in a mismatch with long-standing, implicit cultural ideals — in other words, prototypes. In U.S. culture, the traits that are most often attributed to high achievement are agentic — expressing agency, control, and dominance — and associated with men more than women. Because of this, men reflect an implicit leadership prototype that informs our expectations for all high-achieving leaders.

We know logically that being tall and having salt-and-pepper hair are not necessary for career success. But we can work to help these implicit biases become consciously considered in our workplaces and thus reduce them. Compliments such as “You’re young for a CEO!” can actually perpetuate a sense of inadequacy because they suggest difference from a prototype. Our recommendation is to avoid comments that reinforce a narrow image of success.

Recommendation: Develop psychological safety in your work environment.

In some work environments, a culture of competition is prized. Some employees are seen as the “bright ones” or the “wunderkinds.” Unfortunately, in this culture, people who are experiencing imposter thoughts may base their own self-worth on these hierarchies.

A friend of ours who grew up playing classical music at a high level and now is a very successful professional often mentions that she feels only as good as her last success. “All the ones before that don’t count,” she has said. “In music, I was only as good as the last competition.” Though she loved playing, the perfectionist culture did not provide psychological safety — the perception that interpersonal risk-taking, such as taking steps toward improvement or facing the possibility of failure, is valued. This woman eventually left music to invest her significant talent and intelligence elsewhere.

We can’t tell people who experience imposter syndrome to value their complicated humanity if our work culture doesn’t.

A work culture that values people primarily for their competence-related success misses out on a whole spectrum of human potential. It undervalues relationships and social ties that are not strictly utilitarian but still help shape ideas, people, and even the organization in nuanced ways. Fostering a work culture that values the whole person allows a wide range of employees to contribute in more meaningful ways. We can’t tell people who experience imposter syndrome to value their complicated humanity if our work culture doesn’t.

Recommendation: Check your bias when allocating rewards and assignments.

We say that all people are valued in the workforce and hired on merit, but in the U.S., Black workers earn just 76 cents for every dollar paid to White workers. When employees are paid less than their peers, this may increase perceptions that they are not of equal value and that their work is less than or discounted. Employees are then likely to attribute the lack of equal compensation to their incompetence, fraudulence, and not being enough in the eyes of others. Compensating people equally and reducing the pay gap sends a strong signal that people from underrepresented groups are valued the same as their peers in the eyes of the reward system.

Providing challenging assignments to employees from underrepresented groups also shows respect for their capabilities. Don’t fall prey to so-called benevolent sexism or related biases where we fail to provide demanding projects to women and employees of color. To develop their skills and confidence, employees need to be given challenging work.

At the same time, managers should also pay attention to who gets promoted to jobs that sit on a glass cliff. This term refers to the greater likelihood for women, especially women of color, to be appointed to leadership positions that are risky and precarious, making it easier to shift blame for the struggles or failure of a project from its original architects to the leader who was put in place when the situation was already uncertain.

For high-achieving people from underrepresented groups, the workplace can feel precarious — a place where merit might not be enough. Managers have the ability to support employees to counter their imposter thoughts and build their self-worth and self-esteem so that their imposter thoughts come up less frequently and have fewer effects on their work lives. They can help make these feelings passing thoughts instead of a cultural constant.

As the workplace evolves, as equality becomes increasingly achievable, and as managers hone their skills to properly identify and support their employees’ psychological experience of the workplace, we believe imposter syndrome will loosen its grip.

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