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Dealing With Impostor Syndrome As an Individual And As a Company

Impostor syndrome is very common in the tech industry. In a survey of over 10,000 software engineers, developers and designers working for tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon, Blind found that 58% of tech employees reported suffering from impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome – also known as fraud syndrome – is a psychological pattern in […]

Impostor syndrome is very common in the tech industry. In a survey of over 10,000 software engineers, developers and designers working for tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon, Blind found that 58% of tech employees reported suffering from impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome – also known as fraud syndrome – is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and is constantly afraid of being exposed as a fraud. You might have heard about it – but how often have you discussed it in your company?

The term “impostor syndrome” was introduced back in 1978 by clinical psychologists who studied a sample of 150 high-achieving women. Despite obvious evidence of success, these women had a pervasive psychological experience that they were incompetent and feared being exposed as frauds. They suffered from anxiety, fear of failure and dissatisfaction with life. Later studies have shown that the syndrome is also experienced by men and is surprisingly common in the tech industry.

How common is impostor syndrome?

Potentially everyone suffers from impostor syndrome: it’s estimated that 70% of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives (Sakulku, J.; International Journal of Behavioral Science, 2011). And your position or experience doesn’t seem to matter.

In 2014, Roger Jones, chief executive of Vantage Hill Partners, surveyed 116 CEOs and other executives and found out that their biggest fear was related to impostor syndrome. This fear diminished their confidence and undermined relationships with other executives, even leading to political games.

Even if you don’t suffer from impostor syndrome yourself, people around you do. It has serious effects on your team’s wellbeing and performance. It is thus critically important to make the phenomenon visible and find ways to manage it.

How does impostor syndrome affect team performance?

As a person suffering from impostor syndrome, you have a persistent fear that the people around you are going to find out that you are not qualified for whatever you’re doing. You might compare yourself to your peers and feel that you have somehow tricked your employer into giving you the job. You are constantly afraid that people will realize how imcompetent you are and, therefore, you feel the need to protect yourself.

Feelings of incompetence push most of us into overdrive when you constantly feel inferior to your peers. When trying to overcompensate, people become so worried about how capable they appear as individuals that they lose focus on their team’s shared assets and targets. They create barriers and constantly watch their backs.

These fears lead to a lack of honest conversations, foster political game-playing and hurt cooperation: studies have shown that such fears can disrupt the healthy functioning of whole companies. “Fears and dysfunctional behaviors will always influence human beings”, said Jones.

Let’s keep one thing in mind. No one has all of the skills found in their organization. That is the ultimate reason to hire people with different strengths and to create teams of people with complementary skills.

Five ways to suffer from impostor syndrome

In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Valerie Young lists five types of impostor syndrome. The list may be a bit narrow or generalized, but it’s a good place to start. When you start dealing with your syndrome or try to understand others suffering from it, it’s important to understand where the feelings come from. All of these types might need a slightly different approach. One can also be a mix of these.

You can be a perfectionist and set your goals so high that it’s simply impossible to achieve them. Even if your results are extremely good, you feel bad for not living up to your own standards.

Maybe you’re an expert who thinks that a real expert should know everything about your line of work. You study all the time, get certifications and/or do a tremendous amount of research about everything before you start any project. You’re afraid to ask questions because you think you should already know the answer.

If you’re a natural genius, who usually thinks quickly and learns things easily, you might start feeling awkward when you come across something that’s not easy for you to learn. Not used to putting effort into things, you start thinking that if something is difficult for you, you know nothing and it’s all pretend.

As a soloist, you think you have to do everything by yourself. You feel that asking for help is the same as saying you have no idea what you are doing and you’re a total failure. Feeling unsure about something can make you insecure and defensive.

If you’re a superwoman/superman, you feel the need to prove yourself in your personal life too – in hobbies, parenting, relationships, etc. You take it very hard if you’re not accomplishing what you want in every aspect of your life.

How to deal with impostor syndrome?

There are multiple ways to fight impostor syndrome at the individual level. But there’s only so much you can do without support from your organization. That’s why we went even further and made a list of things for organizations to keep in mind  – the phenomenon hurts not only individuals but entire organizations as well.

Dealing with impostor syndrome on a personal level

1. Come to terms with the fact that an inspirational quote or TED talk about the issue will not heal your impostor syndrome. It takes work and time for you to grow out of this pattern.

2. The problem is common with high-achieving professionals, CEO’s and executives. Achieving more will probably not solve it. Understanding this can help: Maybe you’ll begin to see that your impostor syndrome is actually just a feeling and not related to the quality of your work or how pro you are.

3. Try to remember that you are not alone with this, it’s a universal feeling.

4. Focus on learning, not performing. Mistakes are an inevitable part of learning, not a sign of inadequacy. Embrace every new possibility to learn and share your insights with your colleagues.

5. If you’re in the early stages of your career, recognize the benefits of being a novice. As  Andy Molinsky, a professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, put it: “When you are not steeped in the conventional wisdom of a given profession, you can ask questions that haven’t been asked before or approach problems in ways others haven’t thought of.”

6. Stop worrying about what other people think and focus on what you are actually working on. In a healthy work environment, your colleagues are not constantly questioning your abilities and expecting you to fail.

7. Some will never get rid of the feeling but just have to learn to live with it. The above tips can still help you learn to put such feelings into perspective.


Dealing with impostor syndrome at the organizational level

1. Start by making impostor syndrome visible and talking about it. Let everyone know that they are not alone with these feelings and that it’s a common issue.

2. Remember that a one-off discussion is a good start, but can’t solve the issue. Some of your employees are suffering from impostor syndrome and need on-going support. Make a plan.

3. Recognize the significance of emotional intelligence, especially among executives. It helps people recognize the fears of others and facilitates discussion. Practice empathy especially when sharing knowledge.

4. Give everyone credit for their strengths and let them know why they were hired.

5. Offer coaching and career planning. At Qvik, we spend a lot of time on coaching and have witnessed its positive effect on people’s confidence in themselves as professionals.

6. Nurture a culture of trust. This is often led by the CEO, but it is just as much a collaborative task for everyone in the organization. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, it might be a good idea to start by reading our article How to Practice Empathy at the Workplace – Learning to Understand and Share Feelings.