Author Profile Picture

Jo Wright

Coaching Culture Ltd


Read more from Jo Wright

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Is imposter syndrome harming your organisation’s performance?

Are organisations reinforcing, or potentially even triggering, imposter syndrome through their workplace culture?

You’ll probably be familiar with the term imposter syndrome. But have you ever considered how many people in your organisation might be affected by it and whether your culture is actually making it worse?

First highlighted by psychologists Imes and Clance in the 1970s, imposter syndrome describes individuals who are convinced that the people around them have an over-inflated perception of their abilities. They don’t feel they deserve their achievements or successes, and instead attribute them to ‘luck’ or external factors – and they are certain that at some point they will be ‘found out’.

People with imposter syndrome don’t feel they deserve their achievements or successes.

There’s been a lot of research since then into imposter syndrome, and while the figures may vary depending on the study, the overall message is consistent: a lot of employees in today’s workplaces will be trying to cope with having imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome casts a long shadow…

Like most issues, some are more likely to struggle with imposter syndrome than others. 2020 KPMG research indicated that 75% of executive women admitted they experienced imposter syndrome at times.

But it isn’t exclusively a female issue, with minority groups also identified as being particularly susceptible. A recent report from Indeed, entitled Working on Wellbeing, found that millennial respondents (25 to 39-year-olds) are the age group most likely to feel like imposters in the workplace (27%).

The figures for transgender respondents also made for troublesome reading, with 64% of those surveyed admitting to struggling with imposter syndrome – in yet another example of workplace issues for the trans community.

Yet despite this clearly being an issue that affects a large proportion of the workforce, 94% of the employees surveyed hadn’t talked about imposter syndrome with anyone at work.

What could imposter syndrome be doing to performance in your organisation?

Consider just how draining it is if your employees are putting their energy into trying to look like everything is going well – creating an ‘illusion of competence’ and pretending to have abilities they don’t regard themselves as genuinely having.

How draining it is if your employees are putting all of their energy into creating an ‘illusion of competence’?

What’s happening to their performance if they are convinced they just aren’t capable enough; that they don’t know enough; that despite outward appearances it’s unlikely they’ll ever be good enough?

This mindset does a lot of damage

This mindset will chip away at your employees wellbeing and knock their self-esteem, leaving them feeling disengaged with their role and the organisation. It can also affect their capacity to innovate and to come up with creative solutions because they won’t feel that they have the capacity to do so.

Yet many businesses still don’t appreciate that it’s a problem, and that imposter syndrome could be affecting their employees and their performance. Not only might their culture be failing to actively help employees address feelings of imposter syndrome – it might actually be making them worse.

Consider the silent signs within your culture 

Many organisations are doing lots of great work around employee engagement and wellbeing. But all that activity is at risk of being at least partially undone by all the silent negative cultural codes that can exist.

Take a few moments to think about your own organisation. Have behaviours such as regularly working late become the norm? If so, could this be exacerbating the problem for imposter syndrome sufferers who feel they have to work harder than everyone else to prove their worth? Is there a cycle of overworking developing as a result, which might lead to burnout, anxiety and even depression?

Workplace norms such as regularly working late could be exacerbating the problem for people who already feel that they have to prove their worth.

Is there a mindset where problems and failures are generally seen as a cause for disappointment rather than being recognised as opportunities to grow?

Are employees encouraged to recognise and celebrate the achievements of the people around them – or is there an unacknowledged sense of competition that’s holding them back from these kinds of supportive behaviours?

How can you start addressing it in your organisation?

Managers play a key role in addressing imposter syndrome. In order to address the issue they need to understand what it is, know what the signs are that could suggest it’s becoming an issue for someone in their team, and be equipped with the right coaching tools to know how to open up conversations.

Recognising the signs

One indicator that an employee is suffering from imposter syndrome is ongoing self-criticism. An example of this could be when a manager gives positive feedback about a piece of work, the employee responds by highlighting all the areas where it didn’t go as it should.

Another example could involve the employee trying to deflect attention away from themselves when referred to as a subject matter expert because deep down they simply don’t see themselves as having the level of knowledge that justifies that label.

What might be some other signs? Procrastination about getting stuck into a piece of work for one. Turning down opportunities to become involved in projects is another.

In fact, there could be several kinds of avoidance behaviours going on, including not putting themselves forward for promotions, because they just don’t think they can do it and fail to recognise what it is they’re actually capable of.

Procrastination, avoiding projects, and not putting themselves forward for promotion could all be signs that someone is suffering from imposter syndrome.

Regular coaching conversations can help employees to start to open up, address these issues and begin shifting their personal perceptions.

Raising managers’ self-awareness

Coaching around the issue of imposter syndrome addresses the problem from another important perspective too. It raises the manager’s own self-awareness about what they are doing personally (and perhaps unintentionally endorsing) that could be making the problem even worse and reinforcing a team member’s negative beliefs about themselves.

Use coaching conversations to shift the mindset

By helping managers to learn how to use positive conversations in the moment, they’ll develop a coaching approach that will continually reinforce team members’ sense of worth.

Coaching conversations help build a psychologically safe environment that enables employees to start acknowledging what they’ve achieved, raising their own self-awareness and encouraging them to recognise their accomplishments.

These conversations also play an important role in helping employees to appreciate that even when things don’t go to plan, it’s an opportunity to learn and build upon – rather than something to internalise as yet more evidence that they’re just ‘no good’.

2 Responses

  1. A great read and thank you
    A great read and thank you for publishing it, Jo. I don’t see enough about this topic.

    My own high bias is around Emotional intelligence (EI), so my take on approaching this issue is through the development of EI. My belief is that if managers and their teams work toward developing EI, many such issues will gradually evaporate as the relationships between the manager and between team members grow and strengthen.

    When we have such strong relationships, in a positive environment within teams, psychological safety, as you point out, is created thereby further enhancing open/honest and fruitful conversations. I would go as far as to say that in high-performing teams, coaching becomes a natural occurrence due to how openly people communicate with each which I believe helps to erode imposter syndrome completely.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to
      Thanks for taking the time to comment Mac, I absolutely agree that EI can be transformative here.

Author Profile Picture
Jo Wright


Read more from Jo Wright

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Subscribe to TrainingZone's newsletter