Imposter syndrome has been linked with anxiety and feelings of low self-worth, but it might actually make you better at your job.
According to a new study, people with imposter syndrome who are less confident at work have better interpersonal skills, which can make for a better employee.
Imposter syndrome is the belief that one’s own success in life isn’t deserved or has been achieved through luck, rather than as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.
People who suffer from the syndrome tend to think of themselves as a ‘fraud’ and fear that at any moment, everyone else will realise it too.
Imposter syndrome – an inability to believe that your success is deserved or has been achieved as a result of your own efforts or skills – may have interpersonal benefits in the workplace, reports a psychologist at MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts (stock image of a woman with imposter syndrome)
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is the persistent inability to believe that your success is deserved or has been achieved as a result of your own efforts or skills.
It is often associated with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and self-sabotage and other traits, according to Thomas Jefferson University.
People with imposter syndrome tend to think that their achievements in life are the result of luck or circumstance, or other factors.
It affects people both in the workplace and in the classroom.
While imposter syndrome isn’t a clinical diagnosis, it is known to be a ‘largely universal fear’ that many experience at work.
The psychological phenomenon was first posited in an article published in 1978, who noted imposter syndrome in women ‘despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments’.
The new study was conducted by Basima Tewfik, a psychologist at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts and published in Academy of Management Journal.
‘Prevailing wisdom paints the impostor phenomenon as detrimental,’ she says in her research paper.
‘In this work, I seek to rebalance the existing conversation around this phenomenon by highlighting that it may also have interpersonal benefits.’
Tewfik referred to imposter syndrome as a ‘silver lining that does actually contribute to success in some respects’.
‘People with impostor syndrome were basically the ones you’d want to work with,’ she told New Scientist.
For the study, Tewfik measured levels of impostor syndrome among 155 employees at an investment advisory firm in the US.
The participants were presented with written statements like ‘At work, others think I have more knowledge or ability than I think I do’ and asked to rate the extent to which these thoughts were true to them.
Tewfik then turned to each participant’s work supervisor, to see whether they saw their employee differently.
Supervisors rated the participants’ performance and interpersonal skills by rating how much they agreed with statements like ‘this employee creates effective working relationships with colleague’.
Tewfik found that employees with impostor syndrome were rated as having better interpersonal skills than more confident peers and were considered just as competent.
IMPOSTER SYNDROME IS COMMON AMONG HIGH ACHIEVERS IN MED SCHOOL
Imposter syndrome is common among high achievers in med school, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Family Medicine.
Thomas Jefferson University researchers examined imposter syndrome in 257 students using a validated survey tool called the Clance Imposter Phenomenon (IP) Scale.
87 per cent of an incoming class reported a high or very high degree of imposter syndrome.
Students’ higher IP scores were associated with lower scores for self-compassion, sociability, self-esteem and higher scores on neuroticism/anxiety.
Therefore, a high CIP score among entering students may be an indicator of future risk for experiencing psychological distress during medical school.
Employees who more frequently had imposter syndrome thoughts were evaluated by their superiors as ‘more interpersonally effective’ because they adopt a more ‘other-focused orientation’, she said.
At the same time, imposter syndrome thoughts can encourage those who have them to ‘self-handicap’ – in other words, to not really help themselves when it comes to doing their job to the best of their ability.
In a second experiment, Tewfik ascertained levels of imposter syndrome in trainee doctors and tested them with fake patients.
Doctors with higher levels of the syndrome were more likely to make statements recognising a patient’s pain, ask follow-up questions, nod, use open hand gestures and eye contact, and talk with a receptive, agreeable tone, New Scientist reports.
This suggests people with impostor syndrome in all sorts of professions – not just those based in offices – are unconsciously trying to compensate for their ‘self-perceived ineptitude’ by being personable and easy to get along with.
However, Tewfik stresses that her findings don’t mean mean having imposter syndrome is a good thing.
‘There’s no neat takeaway message of “embrace your impostor thoughts!”, because we know there are detriments to your well-being,’ she said.
‘I think the work now is on trying to figure out how we can downregulate the anxiety that comes from it so we can start to fully embrace the interpersonal upside.’
People with imposter syndrome tend to think that their achievements in life are the result of luck or circumstance, or other factors (stock image)
Researchers from Brigham Young University have previously found that if you suffer from imposter syndrome, it is best to reach out to friends and family outside of the workplace or in the case of a student, your academic superior.
‘Those outside the social group seem to be able to help students see the big picture and recalibrate their reference groups,’ said Jeff Bednar, a BYU management professor.
‘After reaching outside their social group for support, students are able to understand themselves more holistically rather than being so focused on what they felt they lacked in just one area.’
UP TO 1 IN 5 PEOPLE SUFFER FROM IMPOSTER SYNDROME AND DON’T BELIEVE THEY ARE CAPABLE OF DOING THEIR JOB EVEN THOUGH THEY PERFORM WELL, STUDY FINDS
According to a 2019 study, 20 per cent of individuals suffer from imposter syndrome, despite the fact they perform well when working.
Brigham Young University (BYU) researchers had conducted interviews with students in elite academic programs with the hope of finding was for people who suffer from imposter syndrome cope.
To combat these negative feelings, researchers have suggested ‘reaching out’ to friends and family outside the workplace – because they help people with imposter syndrome see the bigger picture.
When students ‘reached in’ to others within their major, their feelings of being a fraud had increased.
However, if the student ‘reached out’ to family and friends outside their major, or even professors, perceptions of impostorism were reduced.
Although the study was conducted with university students, researchers believe that their finds can be applied to the workplace.
The study was published in The Journal of Vocational Behavior.