Defeat the doubt

Imposter syndrome is a widespread condition that affects both the wellbeing and the productivity of employees


Chart-topping singersOlympic gold medallists and even former US presidents have all felt the weight of imposter syndrome. It’s that niggling sensation that, despite evidence to the contrary, they’ve somehow tricked their way to the top and are about to be unmasked. In fact, it’s likely that most people, however brilliant they are, have experienced this unsettling feeling at some point in their careers.

And while it’s a widespread phenomenon, a KPMG study found that a staggering 75% of female executives feel its effects, highlighting its particular prevalence among women in leadership roles.

Learning how to mitigate the effects of imposter syndrome has become a valuable career tool. There are various methods. Some are singular and personal, such as mantras, music and even our clothes (power suits got their name for a reason, right?). Others are more rooted in the way we structure and manage our businesses.

Imposter syndrome is centred around self-doubt, or as an HR Director article describes it: “The internal psychological experience of feeling like a fraud, despite the success that you might have achieved.” Imposter syndrome, at its worst, can lead to low confidence, work anxiety and stress. And in a work climate where you have to trust your decision-making and your business instincts, it has the potential to have damaging effects.

Behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings says that there are sure signs and behaviours that employers can look out for when spotting imposter syndrome. These include “overworking and perfectionism, reluctance to take on a new challenge, difficulty accepting praise and fear of evaluation, as well as avoiding seeking help or guidance”.

While there is no simple fix to overcoming imposter syndrome – either personally or if you spot it within your employees – a layered and holistic approach can make a positive difference. This can include a number of options.


It’s obvious really. Having a positive ethos at work, where feedback is constructive, optimistic and regular, helps people to know where they stand. Mentors are a perfect way to do this. William Somerville, a PhD student in clinical psychology at The New School in New York City, told Forbes that his mentor’s “supportive, encouraging supervision” made the most significant difference to his imposter syndrome. The aforementioned KPMG study also advocates this. It found that “72% of executive women looked to the advice of a mentor or trusted advisor when doubting their abilities to take on new roles”.

Give people space

Hybrid working can take some of the intensity out of office life. It allows people the freedom to work alone when they need to, take a focused day away from the HQ or reclaim some commuting hours by staying closer to home.

It also enables a better work-life balance. An IWG survey found that hybrid workers spend more time with friends and family, exercise more, sleep better and prepare healthier home meals. As a result, two-thirds of those surveyed felt their mental health improved. This enhanced wellbeing and quality of life can forge a stronger sense of self-worth, helping shed the pervasive doubts and anxieties that are characteristic of imposter syndrome.

Another vital benefit of transitioning to partly out-of-office working is that women, particularly, have felt more confident in advancing their careers. Many women believe hybrid working has empowered them to apply for a more senior role within their organisation. And perhaps linked is the fact that 66% of women surveyed felt this model led to them experiencing fewer biases at work.

Celebrate your successes

Career coach Shona Horsman suggests listing everything you’re good at in any area of your life, whether professional or not. “So many vital qualities fall between the cracks of traditional self-promotion and assessment techniques,” she says. “If you’re struggling to come up with them by yourself, imagine asking a friend what they appreciate about you. Then write them down and put them somewhere to be regularly reminded.”

Sheryl Sandberg, perhaps a more surprising sufferer of imposter syndrome as the former COO of Facebook, says in her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead: “Fortune does favour the bold, and you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try… Confidence and believing in your self-worth are necessary to achieve your potential.”

Maybe we should all tell ourselves that every morning.

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