by Gael O’Brien
In a recent conversation with a friend, I mentioned I’d struggled at times not feeling I was good enough working on a very challenging project. She shared, “that’s why I work hard to be perfect.” Suddenly I was reminded of a ditty my grandmother taught me when I was in middle school. “Good, better, best, never let it rest, till your good is better and your better’s best.” I recognized I’d been acclimated to a creed akin to perfectionism that depletes you.
Inadvertently, I’d walked right into Impostor Syndrome.
Information and research about impostor syndrome has been ongoing for about 45 years, starting with a 1978 paper by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who wrote about feelings – like perfectionism – that they’d observed in years of research and in their own lives. They labeled the range of feelings “the impostor phenomenon.” That label was later rebranded by others to impostor syndrome. The shift from phenomenon (experiences) to a syndrome implies a medical stigma, adding an additional minimization for people who have struggled at times with how they feel about themselves in their environment.
These days, it seems, impostor syndrome is everywhere, with articles this year alone in publications like the New Yorker, Forbes and the Washington Post. Leading the pack was the Harvard Business Review, which featured no less than twenty-six articles on imposter syndrome in a special 2023 Special Summer Issue. I suspect my grandmother would have been stunned.
While some may see it as a media phenomenon pursuing an increasing psychological trend, I think the syndrome reflects the fragility of workplace environments: employees afraid of failing and others conscious of bias and not belonging. The Harvard Business Review editors’ preface, for example, asked readers whether it should be “up to you alone to fix this problem?” They add that “surely organizations have a role to play in cultivating a sense of equity and belonging among all their people.”
Impostor syndrome especially impacts high achievers from all races and genders. It’s triggered by an environment as well as issues like perfectionism, self-doubt, being a fraud, not being enough, and fear of failure. These issues can impair productivity, creativity, new ideas, entrepreneurship, well-being, and belonging. According to Crestcom International: “Often business leaders are unaware of impostor syndrome in their teams and worse, are unaware of how they create a culture that reinforces the impostor syndrome phenomenon.”
There’s a reason we’re still puzzling over impostor syndrome; it’s far-reaching, complicated, and often not considered a work concern. And yet, it’s about the people whose efforts make a company successful or not. Companies taking on the questions of their progress in equity and belonging and if culture is fueling or restricting the syndrome identify their culture gaps. The impact of impostor syndrome is a deeply human issue. The syndrome, like a hurricane, increases pressures with more challenges ahead unless constructive action is taken.
The Toll of Perfectionism
Impostor syndrome affects all ages, but those younger are more vulnerable to the experience.
Among high achievers, perfectionists are the most afraid of failing. Anything that isn’t perfect is deemed a failure. Their stress is high. While managers can value how driven perfectionist achievers are, their well-being depends on how they balance themselves and feel supported.
Researcher Thomas Curran compared perfectionism across generations using data from 1989 to 2016. The outcome was proof that perfectionism was on the rise and likely had a relationship to increasing anxiety, especially among American, Canadian, and British college students:
- Curran said his team’s findings “…raise important questions about how we are structuring society and whether our society’s heavy emphasis on social comparison, and the sorting, sifting and ranking that follows, is benefiting young people.”
- He explained: “Coupled with research demonstrating the destructive effects of perfectionism on mental health, our findings are also potentially a forewarning for schools, universities and employers who may find managing the welfare of young people becomes increasingly important.”
More recent surveys bear that out:
Impostor syndrome stands so large because new graduates don’t know what to expect or how they will fit in. Managers and more seasoned team members giving them the information and support to succeed can reduce fears and increase confidence. Realistically, for that to happen across the board, it needs to be part of a responsive company culture. How newcomers get initiated impacts how they feel about themselves and the company.
Do you remember your first significant job after college or grad school? Decades later, I recall the angst of being the newest and youngest employee in a fast-paced organization of seasoned professionals. I felt overwhelmed but colleagues took time to explain what I wouldn’t otherwise know. Any mistake (from my clothes to writing skills) fueled self-doubt but supportive colleagues made me feel I belonged. Not everyone feels supported as a newcomer – and yet shouldn’t that be the approach to help newcomers start to fit in?
Almost everyone has experienced self-doubt, low confidence, and other anxious feelings. Often a pep talk can restore equilibrium but that doesn’t work when faced with bullying, and implicit bias in the workplace.
Microaggressions and Implicit Bias
Women and people of color are newer to leadership roles within modern corporations and confront particular challenges.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, researchers Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey suggest that it is time to “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” and “End Impostor Syndrome in Your Workplace.” They relate a true story of how implicit bias and bullying nearly destroyed a black woman leading a project with white co-workers. The authors write:
“Leaders must create a culture for women and people of color that addresses systemic bias and racism. Only by doing so can we reduce the experiences that culminate in so-called impostor syndrome among employees from marginalized communities—or at the very least, help those employees channel healthy self-doubt into positive motivation, which is best fostered within a supportive work culture.”
A study by Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin found that impostorism can augment discrimination some minority groups may already feel, which adds to their stress. “Can we say discrimination causes impostorism? No, but we know there’s definitely a link between the two,” Cokley told the New York Times. “Feeling like an impostor can exacerbate the impact of discrimination. This is what we found with African-American students in our study. I suspect that discrimination can also exacerbate the impact of impostorism.”
What Belonging Restarts
It’s not surprising that the graduating college seniors entering their new workplaces in “What the Class of 2023 Wants” wanted to feel “a sense of belonging at their company.” Belonging is also what women, men and people of color deserve and want to trust and experience in their companies. Belonging starts with actions that telegraph employees are valued and heard.
Great Place to Work’s research indicates that when employees experience belonging in the workplace they are: “3 times more likely to feel people look forward to coming to work; 3 times more likely to say their workplace is fun; 9 times more likely to believe people are treated fairly regardless of their race; and 5 times more likely to want to stay at their company a long time.”
Belonging can be a slow process based on whether trust has developed. SHRM’s resource page on “What Employers Can Do” identifies six ideas that can support strengthening culture and connection. They include:
- “Foster belongingness” – give employees a safe space to express their self-doubts;
- “Create a culture where it’s OK to fail” – leaders talking about their own failures is helpful;
- “Provide mentors and allies” – KPMG’s survey of female executives found that 75% had experienced impostor syndrome and manage it with mentors and allies;
- Promote a collaborative culture – enabling being comfortable voicing ideas, concerns and building a team that shares a vision;
- Prioritize inclusion and diversity including “removing barriers affecting people of color;” and
- Provide training.
The path to belonging relies on the awareness of leaders and managers to encourage employees’ growth and contribution in a culture that supports them.
Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, on the Advisory Board of the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow at The Institute for Social Innovation at Babson College.