August 17, 2020

Impostor Syndrome

How can HR support people with Impostor Syndrome?

You may have heard the phrase, and you may even have experienced elements of Impostor Syndrome during your career yourself. But what is it, why do employees experience it, and what can HR do support employees so that it does not impact on their ability to perform at their best?

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome is a psychological term used to identify a specific personal experience of not feeling worthy or qualified to be undertaking a specific job or task, even though they are perhaps the most experienced, or most qualified person to do it. It is a self-belief that bears no resemblance to how other people see them. People that experience Impostor Syndrome fear being exposed for being a fraud and this can have a serious and detrimental impact on their ability to cope in their role and can even lead to other, much more serious, conditions such as depression.

In a peer-reviewed article published by Very Well Mind in May 2020, author Arlin Cuncic identifies the characteristics as:

  • Self-doubt
  • An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
  • Attributing your success to external factors
  • Berating your performance
  • Fear that you won’t live up to expectations
  • Overachieving 
  • Sabotaging your own success
  • Self-doubt
  • Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short

I once spoke to a very senior lady working for a national public sector organisation who had been off sick for several months with anxiety and depression. During our conversation she shared with me her fears and how she felt that she shouldn’t have been given the job that she is in and all the responsibility that came with it. We talked about her qualifications and her career experience to date including her rise on the career ladder and there was absolutely no doubt that she was phenomenal in her work. Outwardly this lady appeared strong and capable, but Impostor Syndrome was a real issue for her, eventually becoming debilitating which lead to her absence. Her employer was also impacted as one of their key members of staff was out of the business for a protracted period.

Why do people experience Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome can affect anybody at any stage of their career but we tend to associate it mostly with women in more senior positions. It is important to understand that this is not the case. In 2019 research into Impostor Syndrome was carried out by Clare Josa and published in a White Paper “Ditching Impostor Syndrome” key findings include “52% of female and 49% of male respondents struggle with Impostor Syndrome daily or routinely, negatively affecting their performance, their productivity, team working relationships, their mental health, and their employer’s profit”. Some earlier research from 2011 published in Medical News today found “approximately 70% of people experience at least one episode of impostor syndrome in their lives”.

Writing in a peer reviewed article on 2018 for Medical News Today, Jayne Leonard identified that there are common factors that might create a risk of experiencing Impostor Syndrome. She writes:

  • “New challenges: A recent opportunity or success, such as a promotion, can trigger “impostorism.”
  • Growing up with a gifted sibling: When a sibling is considered exceptional, a person may develop ingrained feelings of inadequacy.
  • Being labeled “the clever one”: Children who are taught that they are superior in intelligence, appearance, or talent can develop impostor syndrome when they must inevitably struggle to achieve something.”

How can HR support employees that are experiencing Impostor Syndrome?

With the significant impact that Impostor Syndrome can have on employee wellbeing and performance and, as we have seen, the business itself, it is important that Human Resources practitioners understand this condition and how they can support employees to reduce signs and symptoms enabling them to perform at their best.

An effective way to encourage employees to recognise in themselves the value their contribution has is for managers to properly recognise the great work that the employee does. This has many benefits in terms of employee engagement, commitment and performance but will also guard against some of the potential symptoms of Impostor Syndrome developing; improving confidence.

It is perhaps easy to understand why employees are reluctant to disclose their self-doubt to their employer and ask for support, so it is necessary therefore for business leaders and HR to take responsibility for putting supportive policies in place to support the mental health and wellbeing of all of their staff.

Here are some excellent ways to achieve this:

  1. Ensure Line Managers build in time for effective one-to-ones with staff. Line Managers should encourage reflection of work that is well done as well as recognising development areas. By reflecting on the positive things, employees are more likely to believe in themselves and feel their work has meaning and meets expectations.
  2. Have in place formal recognition schemes such as documented one-to ones (as above) and Appraisal processes. This again ensures there is time for reflection and for employees to ‘test out’ if they are meeting expectations.
  3. Have less formal recognition schemes in place to encourage celebration of success amongst peers. This can be in the form of nominations for an award or even a non-financial recognition such as being recognised in a newsletter. This affirms good performance and should convert doubt into confidence.
  4. Senior Managers should be encouraged to seek out notable contribution from employees and make an effort to thank staff for what they have done, even if it is only doing their job, their job matters and being recognised as doing a good job by more senior managers is a great confidence boost.
  5. Encourage a non-blame culture where employees can make mistakes and learn from them in a positive way leading to valued development opportunities.
  6. Create a learning environment where all employees, no matter their level of seniority, are encouraged to add to the CPD plan and record / assess learning. This will help employees to ask for learning in areas of skills, knowledge or behaviour that worry them the most.
  7. Give employees access to work coaches through an Employee Assistance Provider program so that employees can discuss their concerns confidentially with a professional.

Theresa Mayne – DPG online CIPD course facilitator and HR subject matter expert.