Is It Imposter Syndrome, or Does Your Company Suck?

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Imposter syndrome—that is, when a person doubts their abilities, in spite of their accomplishments—can create a considerable amount of anxiety, fear, and depression, and it can lead to burnout in the workplace. But sometimes, what might be perceived as “imposter syndrome” is actually the result of a toxic or biased work environment.

The phenomenon of imposter syndrome was first described in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in a study that focused on high-achieving women. In an attempt to correct for their perceived lack of ability, a person with imposter syndrome often works harder and harder out of a fear that they will be exposed for being a fraud. When a person dealing with imposter syndrome accomplishes something or receives praise, they may dismiss it as nothing more than good luck.

“[Imposter syndrome] is a collection of thoughts and behaviors related to feeling like you are a fake or a fraud, despite your accomplishments,” said Melody Wilding, a licensed master social worker and author of the book Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work. “There is a difference between the way you perceive yourself and your own capabilities and what is fact.”

How much of imposter syndrome is due to a person’s work environment?  

Although the solutions for overcoming imposter syndrome often focus on the individual experiencing it, the workplace environment also plays a critical role—especially given that it is most often seen in women and people of color, many of who may not have supportive mentors or colleagues who look like them.

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As Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey wrote in a Harvard Business Review article titled “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” earlier this year, “Even if women demonstrate strength, ambition, and resilience, our daily battles with microaggressions, especially expectations and assumptions formed by stereotypes and racism, often push us down. Imposter syndrome as a concept fails to capture this dynamic and puts the onus on women to deal with the effects.”

These environmental factors can lead to imposter syndrome 

As Tulshyan and Burey noted in their article, when the concept of imposter syndrome was first developed, it didn’t take into account the impact that a biased workplace can have on a person. Lacking this context, as well as the inclusion of a diverse set of participants in the original studies, the focus has been on fixing the individual experiencing imposter syndrome, rather than the environment that might be causing it. That’s something, they say, that needs to change.

As Wilding points out, some work environments are more likely to cause imposter syndrome than others. This includes very fast-paced workplaces, along with workplaces that place a high value on external achievements. Another example would be a workplace where managers only offer criticism, rather than praise or encouragement.

“That starts to mess with your head,” she said. “You always feel like you are walking on eggshells or that at any minute, you make one false move and that’s it, you could be fired.”

Another factor that makes a person susceptible to impostor syndrome is if they are either a pathbreaker or the first (or only) person of a race or gender to hold a position or ascend to a certain level within the company. In this situation, not only are they are possibly navigating a biased system, they are often doing so without guidance from others who understand their unique situation.

How to survive an unsupportive work environment 

Ultimately, the best solution for preventing imposter syndrome is for workplaces to become more inclusive. Until that happens, though, in addition to recognizing the role the work environment plays, there are a few strategies people can use to mitigate the effects.

As Wilding suggests, one strategy is that if you can’t find the support you need within your immediate work environment, get creative about finding it externally, such as by joining a professional society or seeking out a mentor from a different division.

She also suggests identifying and naming your inner critic to help create a bit of separation from it. “Giving [your inner critic] an identity that’s separate from you can help you recognize when it’s happening,” Wilding said. She also recommends making it a habit to focus on what you are doing right, which could include putting together a list of your wins, both small and large.

“We all have an inner critic,” Wilding said, “but we all have an inner cheerleader too.”

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