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Impostor Syndrome: How it affects employees in the workplace and how to overcome it

We recently hosted our second annual “Day of Understanding,” featuring conversations on important Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) topics for our staff from our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). The event was a phenomenal success and really worked to continue to foster a respectful and welcoming workplace for all at The Judge Group. In two earlier blogs, we discussed the topics presented by our PRIDE and our Women’s Empowerment ERGs. Both were outstanding and shed light on how to navigate the professional world where we might face unconscious biases or inauthentic leaders.

This blog is a little different, though. Our Young Professionals presented on communicating with c-level executives and the stress that brings for some, as well as how this contributes to impostor syndrome. However, these aren’t issues only young professionals face. These are issues anyone can face – both at work and in their personal lives. That said, studies show impostor syndrome does disproportionately affect millennials in the workplace as compared to other generations, with 70% of millennials experiencing it, as well as women and minority groups.1

Understanding Impostor Syndrome

Referred to as Impostor Syndrome today, the “Impostor Phenomenon” was first identified in the late 1970s by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. The International Journal of Behavioral Science defines Impostor Syndrome as when a person “experience[s] intense feelings that their achievements are undeserved and that they’re likely to be exposed as a fraud.”2

Initially, when Drs. Clance and Imes defined the Impostor Phenomenon, they were studying high-achieving professional women. They theorized that men experienced the phenomenon much less often and with less intensity.3 Indeed, modern studies show that overall, 82% of people report they have felt like an impostor at some point – but that this feeling is particularly prominent in minority groups and women.4 However, impostor syndrome is not limited to any specific gender or race and can be experienced by anyone at any time.

Millennials and Impostor Syndrome

It is also found to affect millennials more than older generations. According to Forbes, “Millennials are most likely to experience Impostor Syndrome… because of technological advancements within their lifetime, [as well as] societal pressures and social media comparisons…”5 Studies also show that nurture, or the way their parents raised them, plays a significant role in how millennials perceive themselves and their success in the workplace.

Millennials, in particular, often hear from the media and older generations that they are privileged and don’t understand hard work or struggle. As Melissa Whitson, associate professor of psychology at the University of New Haven in Connecticut said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, “[For millennials] There’s a tendency to attribute our successes to luck: ‘We were just lucky, we were just privileged.” As a result, she states, “We cannot acknowledge the fact that we are skilled or work hard.”6 This plays into how millennials approach the workplace, placing excessive-performance requirements upon themselves causing burnout and discontent.

Impostor Syndrome in the workplace

In recent years Impostor Syndrome in the workplace has received a great deal of attention. Studies show that there are several negative effects for those who experience the syndrome such as:7

  • Lower levels of job satisfaction
  • Lower organizational citizenship behaviors
  • Being less likely to engage in social activities in and outside of work with colleagues
  • Higher perceived costs of leaving the organization
  • Greater levels of burnout and stress from self-imposed pressure

As our Young Professionals ERG discussed in their presentation, these feelings of being inadequate contribute to employees’ ability to approach and communicate confidently with senior and c-level executives. Though this may be hard to imagine if you do not suffer from Impostor Syndrome, for those who do – who think they are a fraud – communicating with a high-level administrator would, in their perception, welcome the opportunity for them to be discovered as a fraud.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome in the workplace

Ultimately, impostor syndrome is internalized and not something that can actively be improved by outside sources. However, there are some best practices that can help employees feel less debilitated by their feelings of impostorism and more apt to play an active part in the organization. Studies show that mentorship is by far the most helpful practice for employees that a business can champion and support.

The value of mentorship

Mentorship can come from a formal mentorship program or from encouraging mentorships within the company. Because mentorship programs are proven to have a variety of benefits to businesses, such as higher retention rates, improved job satisfaction, and aiding in the personal and professional development of employees, about 70% of Fortune 500 companies have one.8

Having a mentor provides employees with a trusted person they can turn to for an external perspective on their performance and professional growth. Prof. Whitson points out that “A mentor can help people realize these [impostorism] feelings are normal, but they are not based in reality. ”9 Mentorship programs also help employees feel that the company values them and is interested in supporting the advancement of their skills and career. In fact, studies show mentees were promoted five times more than those not in a mentorship program, and mentors six times more.10 Retention rates were significantly higher for mentees (72%) and for mentors (69%) than for employees who did not take part (49%).11

Improving employee relations and business growth

It bears repeating that 82% of employees have experienced impostorism at least once in their careers. That is more than eight in ten people, an exceptionally high percentage. It affects how employees feel while at work, as well as how they perceive their value and contribution to the company. By providing mentorship opportunities or a company-wide mentorship program, businesses can support their employees at all levels to promote understanding and awareness as well as support their employees.

Ultimately, to truly overcome impostor syndrome, employees need to address the issue internally. But employers can support employees’ professional growth and development by providing them with the skills and knowledge that can help employees feel more empowered and confident, as well as by creating resource groups and mentorship programs for employees.

These practices go a long way in overcoming impostorism in the workplace. Our Young Professionals ERG brought this important topic to our attention, and it is one that we look forward to addressing as a company to further support our employees in their professional growth.