What do Pulitzer-winning author Maya Angelou and First Lady Michelle Obama have in common?
Yes, they’re both accomplished leaders who have become icons in American culture. But you might not know that both women struggle with imposter syndrome: the fear of being “found out” as a fraud who doesn’t possess the skills other people attribute to them.
Obama says, “I still have a little impostor syndrome … We all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.” Similarly, Maya says, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody….”
It turns out that imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon. Keep reading to discover if you suffer from it and get the answers you need to overcome imposter syndrome in the workplace!
What You Need to Know About Imposter Syndrome
If you’ve struggled with feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt in the workplace, you’re in good company. According to one study by the International Journal of Behavioral Science, up to 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point.
What Does it Feel Like to Have Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome generally presents as a fear of being “found out.” Individuals worry that one misstep, mistake, or less-than-stellar performance will reveal their “true” self.
People who suffer from imposter syndrome tend to dismiss their accomplishments or wins as “luck” or masterful deception. As a result, praise or acknowledgment can feel uncomfortable since it brings up the thought, “I’ve fooled them,” or, “Next time, I’ll mess up, and they’ll see how incompetent I am.”
Over time, imposter syndrome can become debilitating, leading to anxiety, stress, and a warped self-image.
What Does Imposter Syndrome Look Like in the Workplace?
Imposter syndrome can manifest itself in lots of different ways in the workplace. Do you recognize yourself in any of the following behaviors?
- Holding back from offering your opinion for fear of being ridiculed or dismissed.
- “Playing it safe,” or keeping a low profile on your team to avoid having your work or performance acknowledged—even in a positive way.
- Refusing to ask for help because you worry it will make you look weak or incompetent.
- Deciding not to apply for a new position or promotion because you think you’re not qualified (despite your resume and experience).
- Obsessing over failures or mistakes, or constantly fearing that you might lose your job if your superiors realize you aren’t good enough or smart enough.
- Burning yourself out with extra work to “make up” for your perceived shortcomings and “earn your keep.”
The Antidote to Imposter Syndrome? Psychological Safety
To overcome imposter syndrome, individuals need to feel comfortable being vulnerable, making mistakes, asking for help, and taking risks without fearing negative consequences.
This dynamic describes a phrase that behavioral scientists call “psychological safety.” In a now well-known study, Google found that psychological safety was the most crucial factor in creating high-performing teams—and confident employees.
If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome in the workplace, that foundation of psychological safety is crucial. Otherwise, if vulnerability, risks, and mistakes are met with punishment or a lukewarm response, it will feel like evidence that your fears and anxiety were justified.
Psychologically safe workplaces make individuals feel seen, valued, and respected—even when they make errors. Over time, people learn that mistakes don’t “cancel out” good work, and even “silly” ideas are welcomed as fodder for brainstorming.
Strategies for Beating Imposter Syndrome
Leaders and employees can work together to cultivate psychological safety through modeling vulnerability, creating opportunities for employees to give honest feedback without reprisal, and praising effort and risk-taking, even if it doesn’t pay off in success.
Learn More Ways to Cultivate Psychological Safety on Your Team
As that baseline of psychological safety grows, there are more helpful strategies you can use to overcome imposter syndrome:
- Focus on Your Wins: Make a conscious effort to shift focus from your perceived shortcomings to your abilities, progress, and hard work. Keep a running list of moments when you felt proud of yourself, accomplished your goals, or earned recognition. Take time each day to remind yourself of your skills and strengths.
- BeVulnerable: Tell a trusted colleague when you’re having a tough day. Ask for help on a complex project. Ask your supervisor for a regular 1:1. These vulnerable actions can initially feel scary but get easier with practice.
- Talk to Someone you Trust About your Feelings of Being a “Fraud.” Like Mr. Rogers said, “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” Talk to a colleague, friend, or mentor who can help you feel seen and understood. By voicing your negative thoughts, you can be more objective about them.
- Practice Self-Compassion: Talk to yourself like you would a friend. When you make mistakes, remember that it’s all part of the learning process.
- Take Risks: Challenge yourself by taking on new tasks or projects, even if it feels scary. Then take time to reflect on your results and accomplishments. This behavior can help you build confidence in your abilities and intelligence.
Reflect and Apply
Imposter syndrome is widespread in the workplace. But with the right strategies and a focus on psychological safety, leaders and employees can overcome it.
If you have struggled with imposter syndrome, let us know what ideas or quotes from this blog post spoke to you by sharing them with us on Twitter using #impostersyndrome. And remember: you are not an imposter. You’ve earned your accomplishment and belong in your workplace.