Imposter Phenomenon: what is it and how can employers help?

Totaljobs surveyed over 2,000 UK workers in February 2019 to delve into Imposter Phenomenon.

We worked alongside two experts to produce this research: Dr Terri Simpkin, lecturer in leadership and corporate education at Anglia Ruskin University and Kate Atkin, speaker facilitator and Imposter Phenomenon researcher.

What is Imposter Phenomenon?

You’ve likely heard the term referenced by the media more commonly as ‘Imposter Syndrome’. However, in psychological terms, it is known more accurately as ‘impostor phenomenon’. This is because it’s defined as an experience that is not constant, but instead arises in certain situations – most often work. It is not a mental health condition. It can be defined as an internal feeling of intellectual phoniness or fraudulence, despite evidence of previous success and achievement.

Totaljobs research shows that Imposter Phenomenon has been experienced by 70% of UK workers, highlighting the need for greater understanding and awareness of how to tackle it. The phenomenon is more than self-doubt, which is a discomfort that typically fades as you gain experience. Imposter Phenomenon differs because it persists, often despite a proven track record of success and validation from others. Think of it as an unconscious bias – against yourself.

Who experiences Imposter Phenomenon?

Imposter Phenomenon can be experienced by a wide variety of people in the workplace. However, those who feel they are in the minority at work, imposter feelings are more likely to be present. The reasons behind this are complex and nuanced, from an individual’s upbringing to their experiences at school and at work or how integrated and included they feel within their peer group.

  • 75% of female respondents experience Imposter Phenomenon
  • 77% of LGBTQ+ respondents experience Imposter Phenomenon
  • 62% of BAME respondents experience Imposter Phenomenon

What are the implications?

Feeling like a fraud or as if you are not deserving of praise can lead to increased stress and worry over performance at work. It may also be detrimental to personal development and recognition, as people may be unlikely to share examples of the work they’ve done, or to highlight the value they brought to a particular project.

  • 70% allow others to take credit for their work.
  • Over half feel uncomfortable when receiving recognition for good work.
  • 40% feel they haven’t met expectations, despite evidence suggesting otherwise.
  • A third have felt anxious.

How can managers help?

Recognition of Imposter Phenomenon

There is not a one size fits all solution, as each individual experiences Imposter Phenomenon differently, depending on their background and lived experience among a myriad of other factors. The key is to understand how Imposter phenomenon differs to self-doubt. Communicating this to your team will help to emphasise how an individual’s perception of their own success and skills may not be giving them enough credit.

Clear job descriptions

Over half of those experiencing Imposter Phenomenon say having a clear job description when starting a new job helps them to feel less like a “fake”. Having a job description to refer back to once an employee has spent more time in their role also gives them a good basis to understand how they’re performing against the role requirements.

Tailored feedback

Managers can help to tackle Imposter Phenomenon in their teams by understanding what kind of feedback is most beneficial to individuals. Those who experience Imposter Phenomenon may find it useful to receive objective evidence of a job well done – as opposed to generic praise. Utilising personal objectives or a project checklist can be a straightforward way of ensuring the individual understands what is required, rather than the individual overreaching beyond what is necessary.

If you’re experiencing Imposter Phenomenon:

Managers aren’t exempt from experiencing Imposter Phenomenon. In fact, 68% of senior managers and 78% of junior managers state they have encountered the phenomenon. As individuals, we can start to interrogate our thoughts in a bid to silence the voice of our ‘imposter’ selves, whatever our role at work. If you notice yourself brushing off praise with a “it was nothing” or “that wasn’t me”, ask yourself why you’re struggling to accept the compliment. Take notes so you don’t forget the positive feedback you’ve received in the past and refer back to it when you’re not feeling as confident in your abilities.

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