The impostor syndrome has been receiving a good deal of social media coverage recently. Hardly a day goes by without a person in the public eye posting something about the phenomenon. Sadly, however, we’re seeing a highly oversimplified view of what can be a debilitating and long-term experience; limiting careers, sapping motivation and suppressing potential.

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).  

So how does it impact organisations and workplaces?

Performance management/ talent management

Performance management/ talent management is an ‘imposter’s’ nightmare because the thought of having to talk about their achievements and ‘failures’ is highly uncomfortable for them. ‘Impostors’ will instead prefer to attribute their achievements to others or luck, or will dismiss them completely, but absorb all responsibility for their failures.

Managers can minimise this by getting to know the person and the work that they produce. By using objective measures as evidence to counter the dismissal of achievement, it gives the ‘impostor’ certainty that their work is of merit and the manager will have the evidence to prove it. 

If managers are clearly unaware of what the ‘impostor’ actually does in their role, any feedback, good or otherwise will be dismissed. In a recent study, a research participant suggested “If she doesn’t know what I do, how can I trust her judgement on my work. It’s all platitudes.”

Pay negotiations 

“I knew I could have asked for more, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

In an environment where pay gaps are under scrutiny, it’s important to examine how impostor experiences may make a contribution. In pay negotiations, impostors’ are more likely to undervalue their contributions because they routinely attribute past achievement or success to luck, their team or some other external factor. 

In an age where costs are tightly controlled, cutting corners and allowing people to undersell themselves as an intentional strategy is tempting, but, cutting costs on salaries will come back elsewhere when disengagement and dissatisfaction lead to underperformance and talent wastage.

However, where accurate, objective and informed assessments of the value individuals bring the organisation are more robust, negotiations must challenge the ‘impostor’s’ own undervaluation of their work and talent potential.  

Recruitment and selection

“Oh, no. I would never applied for this job if I’d been left to my own decision-making. I just didn’t think myself capable.  It was my boss who gave me clarity on what I could bring the role.”

Much work has been done to strip out language that puts people off from applying for roles. Research participants experiencing the impostor phenomenon tell of going through the advertisement and crossing off what they can’t do, or where their experience appears deficient. Ultimately, they discount themselves only to report anger and disappointment that the appointee is less qualified, experienced and capable than they are!

Having stripped out biased language, organisations must now take a more active and inclusive approach.  Organisations can strip out the ‘nice to haves’ in favour of the absolute minimum essential knowledge, skills and abilities. Look for potential and make ‘inferential leaps’ from what someone has done or could do, to what’s required, no matter if it’s a different task or role.  

Managers should not just ‘shout from the roof tops’ that they’re looking for potential candidates for roles. Instead, it’s important to meet people where they are and use accurate performance data (formal or informal) to make informed inferences about a person’s abilities and convince them that they have value to bring to a role.  

‘Imposters’ are masters at rationalising away their capabilities and may need persuading to apply. Where talent is at a premium, it’s a leader’s obligation to make sure they tap every available seam of capability, even if it needs a little ‘mining’.

The impostor phenomenon as a workplace issue is complex but it’s clear that it underpins a number of seemingly intractable challenges currently faced by organisations. However, a little consideration, and responding appropriately to diminish the impostor phenomenon in individuals, is key to better leadership and a more successful workplace.

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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