One day at one of my client projects, a manager’s boss was on site to review the project status (let’s call this manager “David”). David brought his boss into the team room to do some introductions. He went around the room introducing members of our team with their names, team role, and the type of work they’d been doing. When he got to me, he said “this is Toby. Toby’s our resident basketball player.” There was no mention of my role on the project, or of the work I had been doing in my three weeks on the project.
Something was unsettling about this interaction, and I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out why I felt so off. Why did my manager feel the need to highlight that I was a former athlete and overlook my contribution to the team? It was like he felt it necessary to explain why I was there; like I needed something that made me special enough to be on this project. It was as if I didn’t belong on the project except for this fact.
PsychologyToday defines impostor syndrome as “a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.” It can also be described as a feeling that you don’t fit in a certain environment; that you got there by luck or by factors outside of your control. This phenomenon is common for everyone, regardless of demographic — a study by the Internal Journal of Behavioral Science concluded that 70% of people claim to have felt impostor syndrome at some point in their lives.
People can begin to feel impostor syndrome for several reasons, but the primary causes can be split into nature or nurture.
From a nature perspective, people that struggle with anxiety can have a hard time accepting their place at a company. Alternatively, the environment in which a person develops can play a part. Someone that grows up without getting acknowledged for his accomplishments — think of something as simple as not getting recognized for obtaining good grades or playing well in your youth soccer games — could be more inclined to ignore his own achievements. Lastly, the work atmosphere can play a part. For a minority employee, a lack of representation amongst her peers might steer that employee to feel as if she slipped through the cracks or got lucky during the recruiting process. This last cause specifically could be detrimental to the experiences of diverse employees in the corporate space.
Often, people suffering from impostor syndrome react two ways when given a new task at work. They either:
Following either of these reactions, even if employees receive good feedback for the work they submit, they will often attribute it to luck or other external reasons, causing them to further internalize the idea that they are frauds.
The experience with my manager stood out because, to me, he felt that he had to point out why I was capable of being on the team. For a few weeks on that project, impostor syndrome snuck up on me. I began to think that I’d gotten the job, not because of my ability or because I’d done well in the recruiting process, but because I was a former college athlete and the firm wanted to be able to brag about people like me. I started to doubt if I belonged at my company.
This is how impostor syndrome works: it starts as a seed of doubt as to whether you belong in your current position. Over time, that seed sprouts and those doubts can get bigger and bigger until you believe them to be irrefutable truths. I was convinced that had it not been for me playing a sport, I wouldn’t have gotten the job. Soon, bigger, more negative thoughts crept in: I had stolen a spot from someone more deserving; at some point, they would determine that I wasn’t proficient, and they’d replace me with someone else.
Impostor syndrome isn’t exclusive to just racial minorities. Women, veterans, people with disabilities, even those in the majority might develop these thoughts over the course of their careers. There are ways to manage impostor syndrome:
1. Find an ally — chances are that you aren’t the only person in your workplace battling impostor syndrome. If you have people that you feel confident talking openly with at work, reach out to them about how you’re feeling. Those people should be able to provide positive reinforcement and remind you that you have a place in the company.
2. Reward your efforts — break the cycle of working extra hard, getting positive feedback, and then attributing that feedback to things out of your control. Learn to acknowledge your hard work and pat yourself on the back. Even something as small as getting your favorite dinner after a successful meeting can buttress the idea that you worked hard and earned your standing.
3. Add pressure to the stakes — it sounds counterintuitive, but for those that respond to impostor syndrome by procrastinating, it might be helpful to make the situation direr. Try bumping one of your important deadlines up by a few days. This will force you to be efficient and intentional with your time. With this strategy, if you succeed, you’re more likely to internalize the win, and even if you fail, you’ll know that you strived for more than what was asked for you.
At its core, impostor syndrome stems from employees feeling insecure about their positions. To combat this, some companies have recently begun programs to promote psychological safety. Simply put, psychological safety is the confidence that one won’t be chastised for making an error or taking a risk.
Google is a company leading the charge for psychological safety in the workplace. Through continuous surveying of different Google groups over the past few years, the company has determined that psychological safety is the number one factor for the success of a team. Employees on these teams are not afraid to say “I’m sorry, I got lost. What are we working on?” They don’t hesitate to take on a new role or to work with a member of the team that they haven’t partnered with before. The peace of mind that an employee’s team and the company will support her even if she doesn’t succeed encourages that employee to get out of her comfort zone, something that people facing impostor syndrome would typically avoid.
Impostor syndrome is something that I and many other minorities have dealt with in the workplace. Employees can fight it by finding an ally that they can openly talk to, rewarding themselves for their hard work, and raising the pressure for certain situations. However, while there are strategies for employees to take, employers should also try to develop nurturing team environments that ensure workers that they have support in everything they do. My most enjoyable work experiences have come on the projects where I feel like I can never ask a stupid question. Those projects give me the opportunity to put my best foot forward, not because I have something to prove, but because I don’t.