Impostor Phenomenon @ Work.

Author: Dr Terri Simpkin, Portman Partners Associate

The impostor syndrome (it’s actually not a syndrome, it’s a phenomenon) has been receiving a bit of coverage in the media lately and particularly so on social media. Sadly we’re seeing a highly oversimplified view of what can be a debilitating and long-term experience; limiting careers, sapping motivation, supressing potential.

My mission is to change the popular misunderstanding that this impacts only the individuals experiencing the impostor phenomenon, an often illogical sense of fraudulence. My 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 is an ‘imposter’s’ nightmare. The thought of having to talk about achievements and ‘failures’ is highly uncomfortable. ‘Impostors’ will attribute their achievements to others or luck or dismiss them completely, but absorb all responsibility for failure.

Managers can minimise this by knowing the person and their work. Using objective measures as evidence to counter the dismissal of achievement gives the ‘impostor’ surety 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. Cutting costs on salaries will add cost 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 & 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 to 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. 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 put 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 more successful workplaces.

This blog was written by Dr Terri Simpkin, a leading expert in the ‘Impostor Phenomenon’. You can find her original blog here, as well as many more resources surrounding the subject here.