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How to Get Over Imposter Syndrome at Work

April 12, 2021

Between a dog-eat-dog culture and a constant stream of social media, people can feel a need to “keep up” at work and online. While some competition is good, unhealthy competitive environments can result in feelings of failure and intensify feelings of imposter syndrome.

In fact, this self-doubt or feeling of inferiority may lead you to turn down a challenging job role or project. Although you may be tempted to ignore it, imposter syndrome is rarely a one-off occurrence. Instead, it's a recurring cycle that you should address.

In this guide, we'll answer the question "What is imposter syndrome," explore signs and triggers of imposter syndrome, and provide you with five tips for how to get over imposter syndrome at work.

What is Imposter Syndrome, and Why Does it Occur?

Professionals define imposter syndrome at work as "doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud at work."1 Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the phrase in 1978, during a study of high-achieving women, where "women reported feelings of "intellectual phoniness," as if they "lucked out" or tricked someone into believing they were smart and qualified.”2

The prevalence of imposter syndrome varies based on the study participants. The Mental Health Journal says it ranges "from 9% to 82%," whereas a recent KPMG finds "75% of female executives across industries have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers."3,4

Clance and Imes originally focused on professional women, but over the years, many studies have looked at imposter syndrome in students, employees and leaders with various genders and backgrounds.2

Potential Imposter Syndrome Triggers

Imposter syndrome often develops during your upbringing, and instances of imposter syndrome occurring can correspond with beginning a new job position or being surrounded by different people:

  • Upbringing: Some people may experience ingrained feelings of never being good enough because their family didn't recognize or appreciate the individual's achievements or differences.
  • New role in life: Starting a new job, position or graduate school can leave you uncertain of your capabilities. New parents or caretakers may also feel this way.
  • Workplaces: Competitive or high-pressure environments, unclear expectations, a lack of diversity and poor communication can increase imposter syndrome at work.

Signs of Imposter Syndrome

Clance and Imes say, "The clinical symptoms most frequently reported are generalized anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression and frustration related to the inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement."5 However, there are many signs of imposter syndrome, such as:

  • Overpreparing for tasks
  • Negative self-talk or self-doubt
  • A hard time recognizing your success
  • Fear of failure or not meeting expectations
  • Downplaying achievements, such as saying it's due to luck
  • Self-sabotage, such as a procrastination problem
  • Saying no to opportunities outside of your comfort zone
  • Second-guessing decisions
  • Refusing to ask for help
  • Feeling like you don't belong

5 Tips to Stop Feeling Like a Fraud

There isn't a fast fix to stopping imposter syndrome at work. Instead, it's an ongoing process requiring individuals to identify, accept and overcome triggers and reactions. Learn how to get over imposter syndrome at work using the following tips:

1. Acknowledge Your Professional Accomplishments

Employees with imposter syndrome may have difficulty accepting praise for a job well-done. Or, workers may give excuses for their success or attribute it to a variable outside of their control.

But, the fact is, you did the work and earned it. Rather than rushing into your next task, take time to recognize your expertise. Add it to your list of accomplishments, such as a brag file or vision board. Seeing a list of successes helps you internalize it and celebrate a win, no matter how small.

2. Assess Your Skill Set Regularly

Today's employees face rapid technological advancements and changing workplace expectations. As a result, many people feel like they lack the knowledge to do their job or advance their careers.

Combat self-doubt by figuring out what you do best and where you need to improve. Then, create a list of possible upskilling or reskilling opportunities and career goals to help you gain confidence in these areas.

3. Identify Barriers to Overcoming Imposter Syndrome at Work

What stops you from saying yes to a challenging project? What fear keeps you up at night? Consider reframing your fear or self-doubt by looking at tasks as a learning opportunity, an occasion to pursue or improve various skills.

Your internal self may say you need to prove yourself to your boss, manager or co-workers. But, if you're facing imposter syndrome, these thoughts can be detrimental. By reframing the task and focusing on a benefit to you, it's easier to pursue a responsibility without feeling anxiety.

4. Get Mental Health Support

Several professionals suggest that feelings of imposter syndrome can lead to or be part of ongoing mental health issues.3,6 A study in the Journal of Personality Assessment finds, "depression and anxiety were particularly important characteristics of those with imposter feelings as well as low self-discipline and perceived competence."6

Participate in your workplace wellness program or speak with a mental health professional. Programs and healthcare providers can offer tips for addressing anxiety, stress and depression.

5. Find Peer-to-Peer and Mentor Relationships

A side effect of imposter syndrome is a sense of isolation or feeling that you're alone. Getting involved in a support group of like-minded peers can help you gain confidence and share the things that hold you back.

Your workplace may offer networking opportunities or mentorship programs. However, if you don't feel you can get the support you need at work, explore other options. LinkedIn and Facebook groups dedicated to various industry professionals or underrepresented groups give you a chance to connect and feel a sense of belonging.

The Challenge: Defeat Negative Self-Perceptions

Although not everyone will experience self-doubt, high-performers, graduate students and leaders often face thoughts of inadequacy. Upskilling or improving existing skills may provide a confidence boost. You can form a strong foundation of knowledge and skills, giving you the confidence to lead in the workplace, by pursuing an online MBA from Marquette University.

1. Retrieved on March 26, 2021, from hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome
2. Retrieved on March 26, 2021, from psycnet.apa.org/record/1979-26502-001
3. Retrieved on March 26, 2021, from mentalhealthjournal.org/articles/commentary-prevalence-predictors-and-treatment-of-imposter-syndrome-a-systematic-review.html
4. Retrieved on March 26, 2021, from info.kpmg.us/news-perspectives/people-culture/kpmg-study-finds-most-female-executives-experience-imposter-syndrome.html
5. Retrieved on March 26, 2021, from propertycasualtyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf
6. Retrieved on March 26, 2021, from tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/S15327752JPA7802_07?src=recsys