What do Michelle Obama, Neil Gaiman, Emma Watson, Sheryl Sandberg and Howard Schultz all have in common? They’ve all reportedly expressed the experience of feeling like a fake in the face of a track record of recognised achievement. The impostor phenomenon (often misnamed impostor syndrome) has been given quite a platform on social media recently, however, it’s been a topic of robust research for over forty years.

Researchers Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes first coined the term in the seventies, and since then a raft of research has found that the feeling of intellectual phoniness, fear of failure and expectation of being found out as a fraud will be experienced for most people at some point in their lives. It can be inconvenient and frustrating, but for some people, a frequent and on-going experience of ‘impostorism’ can be debilitating; limiting careers, sapping motivation, and suppressing potential and aspiration for individuals.

Continuing on the research, Dr Terri Simpkin is extending the popular understanding that this impacts only the individuals experiencing an often-illogical sense of fraudulence. Her work is highlighting the workplace and leadership implications of the impostor phenomenon (IP), but while addressing IP at the individual level is important, it must also be matched with a cultural and managerial behavioural change for any individuals responses to really work.

For example, Simpkin suggests that her research participants felt worse after undertaking their annual performance appraisals.  

“People who scored highly on the IP scale were telling me that they felt uncomfortable explaining all their successes from the year.  They’d attribute their achievements to others or luck or leave them out completely. Some would feel angry that their manager had no idea that they were disguising their achievements.  In a sense, they wanted to be found out for all the good work they’d done, they just couldn’t bring themselves to communicate it.” 

It’s important to note that this is not a false sense of humility or modesty, and while there’s a genuine incapacity to cite achievement and an inability to internalise success, impostors often know they’re capable of doing more if they could get over their fear of failure and develop a ‘comfort’ with receiving praise and good feedback. It is a vicious cycle and it repeats itself over and over.  

This incapacity to highlight and accurately attribute successes has an impact on reward and recognition, promotional opportunities and may contribute to pay gaps, particularly where managers have little real knowledge of the person’s role or performance first hand. In this case, managers are unable to challenge the impostor’s performance report and if there’s a lack of objective measurement too, a highly talented individual may be passed over for promotion or not receive the pay increments they are due. 

One of the most important skills for a leader is self-knowledge and, where that is clouded by a feeling of being an impostor, it can lead to individual burnout and implications for the team as a whole. One respondent told Simpkin, 

“I’d turn into a monster… but I was so fearful that people would find me out to be a total faker I’d keep all the information to myself, demand absolute perfection from my team and then rework their work. I was a nightmare to work for and the sad thing was, logically I knew I was doing it, but I just couldn’t get over that fear of failure and of being found out.”  

A leadership approach like this causes friction within teams, fosters distrust and people are unlikely to perform to their best abilities. At a time when organisations are in need of greater levels of trust, innovation and the accompanying acceptance of failure in a disrupted business environment, the leader with IP is less likely to instil engagement and discretionary effort from their teams. 

While social media presents a popular understanding of the impostor phenomenon as an unfortunate issue for individuals to address, the reality is more complex and far-reaching. Broader social impacts of behaviours and systems we work with must be taken into consideration and modified if we are to remove the fuel that allows the phenomenon to flourish in our workplaces and communities.

Braver Stronger Smarter is an integrated, evidence-based suite of programmes that can help individuals and organisations improve diversity, inclusion and pay equality.

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