Last time on the blog, we looked at five different types of imposter syndrome, defined by Dr. Valerie Young. This week, we are stepping back from the individual and looking at the cultural, structural, or organizational patterns that cause imposter syndrome to be so prominent.
In a 2008 article, The Harvard Business Review has defined imposter syndrome as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success”. For me, imposter syndrome has shown up as a lack of confidence in my skills as a counselor and businesswoman even though I have demonstrated competencies in these areas countless times. Additionally, this doubt can lead to delays in getting started with projects due to individuals feeling as if they are “just not ready yet”, even though they are as prepared as they can be.
Interestingly, the term “imposter syndrome” was first dubbed in the 1970s by researchers looking at the self-image of female graduate students. I identify as a woman, and imposter syndrome impacts women and minority groups more frequently, perhaps because they have fewer role models to aspire towards.
There is a strong argument to be made for the idea that imposter syndrome is related to broad societal norms and familial socialization, but the culture of organizations and workplaces can also lead to increased feelings of being a “fraud”. Social worker Melody Wilding points to three major factors that can increase imposter syndrome: competitive “dog-eat-dog” relational patterns, unclear expectations and communications, and a lack of diversity in leadership and mentoring roles.
An article by Mullangi and Jagsi also suggests that leaders combat imposter syndrome by “recognizing [and actively addressing] the subtle ways in which women [and minority groups] are socialized to behave in public spaces that can prevent them from being recognized for their contributions”.
For those of you in leadership roles, or hoping to address imposter syndrome more widely, here are a few specific suggestions, gathered from the thoughts of Melody Wilding, Samyukta Mullangi, MD, Reshma Jagsi, MD, Ruchika Tulshyan, and Jodi-Ann Burey:
- Promote representation – hire diverse employees into leadership positions; ensure that guiding committees include women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and newer employees; develop mentorships for underrepresented groups
- Recognize bias – create structures for accountability and equity; require trainings for managers to understand systemic differences that may impact employees
- Foster psychological safety – normalize discussions about self-reflection; be honest when you do not know the answers; create space for questions and collaboration; notice the ways in which employees talk about themselves and their performance; do not engage in gaslighting
- Model human work patterns – respect work/life balance; encourage vacations; build in stress-management skills to professional development opportunities
- Praise Accomplishments – focus on effort put in, instead of just the product turned out; celebrate incremental achievements instead of only the end goal
- Utilize feedback for growth – feedback allows for clarification of expectations, focus on strengths, and self-directed plan for continued learning
Combating imposter syndrome creates space for individuals to reach their highest potential, and ultimately benefits workplaces and institutions. With some effort in the areas listed above, hopefully more individuals will take solace in the truth that imposter syndrome is, at its core, a symptom of their success.