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Are your people faking it? How leaders can help manage the impostor phenomenon  

Ever heard of impostor syndrome (or more accurately, the impostor phenomenon)? It refers to when an individual diminishes or is unable to recognise their accomplishments or talents and has a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’, incompetent at their job despite objective evidence to the contrary.

Sadly, it can be a debilitating, long-term experience, which limits careers, saps motivation, and suppresses potential. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way… 

Back by popular demand, Dr Terri Simpkin, goes beyond the usual perception of the impostor phenomenon (IP) as an individual concern. Instead, she explores the workplace implications of IP and what senior leaders can do to better support those who feel like they are “faking it”.

Performance and talent management

Performance management/talent management is an ‘impostor’s’ nightmare.  The thought of having to talk about achievements and ‘failures’ is highly uncomfortable. ‘Impostors’ will attribute their achievements to others or luck or dismiss them completely, but absorb all responsibility for failure.

The very thought of performance reviews makes my toes curl, it’s very uncomfortable hearing good reports on my work… I’d much rather hear the criticism.” – Research Participant

Managers can minimise this by knowing the person and their work. Using objective measures as evidence to counter the dismissal of achievement gives the self-identified ‘impostor’ surety that their work is of merit and the manager will have the evidence to prove it. 

If managers are clearly unaware of what the person actually does in their role, any feedback, good or otherwise will be dismissed. In a recent study a research participant suggested “If she doesn’t know what I do, how can I trust her judgement on my work. It’s all platitudes.”

Of course, this is becoming much more of an issue as people may be working from home or working differently. Being distant from their peers and managers may elevate this sense of disconnect due to distance between doing the work and ad hoc feedback often experienced in the workplace. 

Pay negotiations

I knew I could have asked for more, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” – Research Participant

In an environment where pay gaps are under scrutiny, it’s important to examine how impostor experiences may make a contribution. In pay negotiations those experiencing IP are more likely to undervalue their contributions because they routinely attribute past achievement or success to luck, their team or some other external factor. 

My colleague and I both had our annual pay review on the same day. I took what was offered as I couldn’t bring myself to ask for what I really wanted. My colleague ended up with £10k more than me for the same job.  He wasn’t prepared to take what was on the table. He simply asked for more and got it.” – Research Participant

In an age where costs are tightly controlled, cutting corners and allowing people to undersell themselves as an intentional strategy is tempting. Cutting costs on salaries will add cost elsewhere when disengagement and dissatisfaction lead to underperformance and talent wastage.

However, where accurate, objective and informed assessments of the value individuals bring the organisation are more robust, negotiations must challenge the ‘impostor’s’ own undervaluation of their work and talent potential.  

Recruitment and selection

Oh, no. I would never applied for this job if I’d been left to my own decision-making. I just didn’t think myself capable. It was my boss who gave me clarity on what I could bring the role.” – Workshop Participant

Much work has been done to strip out language that puts people off from applying for roles. Research participants experiencing the impostor phenomenon tell of going through the advertisement and crossing off what they can’t do or where their experience appears deficient. Ultimately, they discount themselves only to report anger, resentment and disappointment that the eventual appointee is less qualified, experienced and capable than they are!

Having stripped out biased language, organisations must now take a more active and inclusive approach. Organisations can strip out the ‘nice to haves’ in favour of the absolute minimum essential knowledge, skills and abilities. Look to potential and make ‘inferential leaps’ from what someone has done or could do, to what’s required no matter if it’s a different task or role.  

Managers should not just ‘shout from the roof tops’ that they’re looking for potential candidates for roles. Meet people where they are and use accurate performance data (formal or informal) to make informed inferences about a person’s abilities and convince them that they have value to bring to a role.  

People experiencing IP are masters at rationalising away their capabilities and may need persuading to apply. Where talent is at a premium, it’s a leader’s obligation to make sure they tap every available seam of capability, even if it needs a little ‘mining’.

The impostor phenomenon as a workplace issue is complex but it’s clear that it underpins a number of seemingly intractable challenges currently faced by organisations. However, a little consideration and responding appropriately to diminish the impostor phenomenon in individuals is key to better leadership and more successful workplaces.

Read more about the Imposter Phenomenon in the age of Covid-19

Want to find out more about the impostor phenomenon?

Delve deeper into the implications of IP by joining Terri's upcoming webinar, 'Leadership: Implications of the impostor phenomenon in the workplace', on Tuesday 10 November, 10-11am.

Book your free place



Dr Terri Simpkin is an Associate Professor and Head of MBA Programmes (International) at the Nottingham University Business School, University of Nottingham. She is an industry experienced academic and former Human Resources Director. She has worked internationally with corporate entities, industry associations and SMEs. She has advised governments on labour and skills policy as well as workforce development. She is a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and a Certified Practitioner, Australian Human Resources Institute.



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