How to help your employees struggling with impostor syndrome at work
Engagement 4 minute read

How to help your employees struggling with impostor syndrome at work

Megan Orr | September 9, 2021

Impostor syndrome at work is a common problem for many people, leading to feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Leaders must come up with ways to create more inclusive and supportive workplaces to reduce impostor syndrome. Here’s how.

Impostor syndrome at work can be debilitating for some employees. From second guessing every decision they make to downright feeling like they don’t deserve their job, employees with impostor syndrome feel like—you guessed it—impostors. 

Business Insider defines impostor syndrome as “when successful or high-achieving individuals doubt their competence and hold back from taking risks for fear of failure”. This fear of failure not only impacts beneficial risk-taking but also overall performance, productivity, and engagement, with 60% of executives surveyed saying that they felt impostor syndrome negatively impacted their ability to lead.  

Impostor syndrome at work can affect everyone, but it affects women more than men, and women of colour in particular. The solution isn’t to simply expect someone to “deal” with their impostor syndrome; it’s to address the organizational and structural issues that may be contributing to impostor syndrome in the first place. As the Harvard Business Review puts it: “fixing the places where women work instead of fixing women at work has become a rallying cry for women of all races across the world”.

Issues of impostor syndrome at work should be addressed at both the individual and organizational level. 

It’s important for managers to be able to address concerns about impostor syndrome with employees directly. Here are some ways to accomplish this:

  • Have open and honest conversations about what biases and structures may exist in your workplace and how those may be contributing to feelings of impostor syndrome
  • Evaluate the type of language used in your workplace and if it’s exclusionary
  • Evaluate the policies and procedures in your workplace to ensure they’re fair to all employees

More generally, you’ll have to evaluate why some employees are so quick to discount their successes or feel like they don’t belong—and the answer may not be as simple as the language you’re using or a specific policy that is potentially exclusionary. There may be bigger issues of underrepresentation, work being discredited or not credited at all, and/or microaggressions that are going unnoticed. 

If your employees are experiencing impostor syndrome at work, you need to assess what’s going on in your organization at a larger scale. 

Consider giving your employees the opportunity to provide feedback in an anonymous survey. This will give everyone the chance to voice their concerns without fear of repercussions. 

Some of the things you might wish to evaluate at your organization include:

  • Bias and discrimination, both at the personal level and when it comes to policies and procedures
  • Your performance and promotion criteria and how it may limit upward mobility for certain employees or groups of employees
  • Your hiring procedures and how inclusive they are
  • Your overall diversity and inclusion

Evaluations can be done through surveys and collecting data, such as the average length of time before an employee receives a salary increase and/or promotion, and then identify any discrepancies between men and women and people of different ethnicities, ages, and orientations. 

It’s important to recognize employee achievements at every opportunity, but to also acknowledge your own limitations as a leader. 

It doesn’t take much effort to recognize and reaffirm employee accomplishments at every level. A simple, “Thanks for completing that task today. I always really appreciate your help!” can go a long way in boosting employees’ sense of accomplishment. Research shows that praising effort rather than “focusing solely on achievement is the best way to stroke a strong sense of self-esteem that keeps impostor syndrome from creeping in”. 

While leaders and executives can and do also experience impostor syndrome at work, it’s important for them to own it and remind their teams that everyone is human and prone to mistakes. Oftentimes perfectionism can be a contributing factor to impostor syndrome in a workplace, so having leaders that are willing to be vulnerable, admit mistakes, and ask for help can be conducive to a more supportive work environment. 

Recognizing that everyone can learn from each other and grow together in a workplace is extremely valuable and can help ensure that employees always feel that they have something to contribute. Stopping impostor syndrome at work means making small changes that will impact the bigger picture and improve employees’ work lives overall.

Give your employees, and yourself, the experience we all deserve.

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