What is Impostor Syndrome, and How to Prevent it From Affecting Your Workforce

This header shows an impression on what the imposter syndrom can look like

What exactly is this topic of impostor syndrome and why is it important to pay close attention to? Impostor syndrome can happen to anyone at any time in their career. Whether someone is doubting their abilities or feeling like they aren’t qualified enough, these are signs of impostor syndrome, which can result in turbulent times and negative outcomes within an organization.

The idea of impostor syndrome has gained quite a lot of attention, specifically from HR and L&D professionals. This concern is with good reason something important to talk about, especially in the workplace. With the work environment becoming increasingly demanding, employees are sought upon to keep up with top performance objectives. The added stress to always perform better than before, on top of feeling incompetent, can lead to employees doubting their work and ultimately influence the company negatively.

HR and L&D professionals should especially recognize that impostor syndrome is a people-centric universal concept that, when undetected, can cause negative repercussions in the workplace.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

The definition of Impostor syndrome is a term that refers to the internal discomfort that one experiences when questioning whether he or she is as competent as others perceive him or her to be. This happens often after a promotion or an achievement – an employee might wonder if he or she is truly “deserving” of the promotion or feeling the success.

What it really boils down to is those who experience this may feel as though they are not successful in what they accomplish, despite clear contradictory evidence against their feelings. Often, they may even live in fear that others would “find out” about their lacking in certain skills or confidence and expose them as being fake – hence the word “impostor.”

The effect that this phenomenon has on the workplace could lead to damaging an employee’s confidence and therefore directly affecting their output. Impostor syndrome can cause various issues, not only physically (like stress or anxiety manifesting itself in clenched jaws, bad posture) but also mentally (berating oneself, avoiding growth situations like public speaking, and so on).

The symptoms of impostor syndrome – what to look out for

In order to prevent impostor syndrome from nudging its way into your workplace, it’s important to identify its key characteristics so you can determine if someone is suffering from it. Again, this circumstance is not a one-size-fits-all situation, but in fact specific to each individual. However, no organization is immune to the effects of impostor syndrome. Understanding a few main indicators helps increase overall awareness around the topic, enabling you to support those who need it.

If any of the following attributes are observed in employees, HR and L&D managers should recognize that this could be an indication of impostor syndrome and put in effort to address any unease or general discomfort. As stated by Training Journal, HR and L&D managers should be able to recognize any of the following possible indicators:

  • Workaholism- displaying difficulty logging off at the end of the workday and regularly working overtime (this usually indicates someone might feel the need to ‘overcompensate’ for something, or has anxiety about job security and the need to prove oneself)
  • Overt Independence – struggling to be a team player and choosing to work mostly independently
  • Perfectionism- striving for perfection and berating him- or herself when that isn’t achieved
  • Expertism- seeking ever more knowledge and facts yet never knows enough; not being able to make decisions or move forward without arming him- or herself with even more data
This image shows the idea of the impostor syndrome

The presence of impostor syndrome in the workplace

It is important to first recognize how much of your workplace knows what impostor syndrome is. According to insights on a survey done by LeadMD, about three out of four people, regardless of gender, claim to be unaware of what impostor syndrome is. Surprising, as this has been a topic that’s come to the forefront of HR and L&D minds in recent years, especially with feminist movements, though it’s evident that both men and women can stand to learn a thing or two about identifying impostor syndrome – within themselves, and others.

As surprising as these results are, this only underscores that HR and L&D leaders should educate employees more on the matter and provide them with correct tools to identify and also avoid feeling like a phony.

Anyone can feel as though they have lost their way at any point in their career, no matter whether they’ve been working at the same company for 10 years or six months. However, some may be more prone to impostor syndrome than others. Depending on what sort of significance employees place on what they can contribute, as well as differing values or ways that people measure their own individual successes, ultimately determines how vulnerable a person may be to impostor syndrome.

How HR and L&D can support employees dealing with impostor syndrome

So, what can be done in order to address this issue within the workplace? How do we keep our employees from being unable to believe in their successes being legitimately achieved?

Keeping an open discussion between employees along with implementing complementary training processes will help alleviate stigma around the topic.

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How HR and L&D can support their employees with impostor syndrome

How to treat impostor syndrome in the workplace

Actions can be taken within the workplace to squash impostor syndrome. Some are as simple as merely educating employees on what impostor syndrome is, to recognizing it in one another and better supporting each other, colleague to colleague.

Setting up trainings specifically on how to deal with this issue, including forming a different mindset around the topic, helps move an organization in the right direction. Understanding what internally motivates employees and what importance they put on their successes is critical to determine in order to set good practices in place to combat