‘I feel like a fake’…

The workplace implications of the impostor phenomenon

Michelle Obama, Neil Gaiman even Neil Armstrong have all identified with the notion of feeling like a faker in their own roles.  From actors to business leaders we hear of the internal monologue of fear and self-doubt that can be crippling.  It’s called the impostor phenomenon (aka impostor syndrome, but it’s not a syndrome!) and it’s rife.

Research suggests that around 70% of people will experience it at some point in their lives.  However, the implications of this often go unexplored.  The feeling of being a faker who will be found out at any moment is often thought of as an individual issue and something that exists only in the heads of the people who are terrified of the failure that they believe is inevitably due.

And it’s simply not the case.

The impostor phenomenon is created, fuelled and perpetuated largely by social learning – the stuff that we learn from the world around us about our own place in it.  It starts in very early life and continues to the current moment.  How we see our talents, our shortcomings, our successes and our potential are all socially constructed and part of a story we tell ourselves about how we compare to or fit in with others.

It stands to reason then, that our workplaces have a role to play in providing evidence to support the story that we live out each day.  Expectations about what we can earn, what roles we might take, how our work will be evaluated and rewarded, who should be in the top jobs and who should be making the tea.  This is all grist for the impostor phenomenon mill.  Let me explain.

Impostors often find it difficult to evaluate and communicate the true value of their work and achievements.  They will underplay their role in successes and often will cite their team, luck or ‘just doing my job’ as key elements in achievements that, in fact, are directly attributable to them.  Put them in a performance review and, as a manager, you’d be forgiven for accepting their version of their successes.  But their version is often untrue and the praise or due rewards may be diminished or omitted because the ‘impostor’ has not clearly or accurately stated their role in workplace success.  This is not a false sense of modesty, either.  It’s an embedded habitual response to deflect the embarrassment and fear of receiving praise.  It’s illogical but very real for those experiencing impostor feelings.

Also, research into women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations indicates that women experiencing the impostor phenomenon will judge their own capacity for promotion to more senior roles less favourably despite evidence to the contrary. They will often diminish their own capacities against others and the research suggests that the feeling of being ‘less than’ others or not as qualified is more likely to prevent pursuit of roles that they are, in fact, eminently qualified for. 

This of course, has implications for pay negotiations and other career advancement benefits for the individual but is also robbing our organisations of much needed talent, capacity for innovation and diverse ideas.

So, looking at just these examples we know that structures such as recruitment and selection, negotiation of pay and rewards, performance management structures and succession planning are in many ways, fuelling the cycle because they’re generally set up for traditional workforces.  However, traditional workforces and traditional modes of structuring our workplaces do not serve our people, all our people, today.

Simpkin, 2018

This issue is complex.  It underpins pressing problems such as the lack of women in STEM, talent shortages, pay differentials, lack of general diversity and skills gaps.  Examining how the workplace feeds the irrational sense of being a fake in one’s own role can generate insight as to why STEM still experiences a damaging lack of diversity.