The imposter phenomenon, where individuals doubt their own abilities and accomplishments despite their ongoing success, can be linked to lost opportunities, talent mismanagement, and poor mental wellbeing. The issue is directly relevant to diversity, equity, and (particularly) inclusion, so what can organizations do to reduce its impact?
Research suggests that around 70% of people will experience the imposter phenomenon at least once in their lives. Sometimes known as imposter syndrome—though the term has been criticized as pathologizing—the phenomenon leads to individuals failing to recognize their own knowledge, skills, and capabilities. The end result can be properly skilled people not putting themselves forward for promotions, new positions, or new tasks.
By tackling the imposter phenomenon, employers stand to increase the mobility of existing employees and avoid having to rely solely on costly external hires. In this article, Analyn Pelayre at PDT Global (part of Affirmity) shows how business leaders can equip themselves to recognize symptoms of the imposter phenomenon in their workforce, helping them to create a more inclusive workplace.
1. Acknowledge the Imposter Phenomenon and Raise Employee Awareness
The first step in countering any phenomenon is to acknowledge that it exists. Ideally, you should treat the imposter phenomenon with the gravity it deserves, and provide resources that help to increase overall knowledge and understanding. You should also ensure that leaders are equipped to help those experiencing it.
You could also run courses, put up posters around your locations highlighting key facts, and hold an awareness week. Of course, due to the nature of the phenomenon, it’s essential that this open, company-wide discussion is backed up with the ability for individuals to obtain information and support privately.
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2. Offer Mentoring, Coaching, and Counseling
Your attempts to raise awareness must be backed with practical programs that help to counteract the phenomenon—mentoring, coaching, and counseling should be made available and easy to access.
These programs don’t have to focus on the imposter phenomenon to be effective, and in fact, they have a wider positive effect on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. For example, mentorship programs provide practical guidance and support to help people succeed, but they can be used by any individuals who need someone to go to in times of doubt. Counseling services have a similar effect—and will help cultivate the feeling that the company is invested in employee wellbeing.
3. Help Employees Recognize Imposter Chatter and Speak Out Against It
Encouraging the calling out and interrogation of “imposter chatter” is an important step in the journey towards a safer psychological environment for everyone. Business leaders need to help employees focus on their strengths, increase their confidence, and create a platform from which people feel safe to positively express what they’ve achieved.
Positive feedback and “developmental” feedback need to be synonymous. Discussions around strengths used at work should be commonplace. By increasing supportive relationships, employees will feel valued and heard. This creates an environment where imposter chatter and self-doubt are less sustainable.
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4. Cultivate an Inclusive Environment
The points above will help you build a more inclusive workplace, but self-doubt can still find its way into your people’s working lives if they fear being called out or being seen as incompetent when they do speak up. To create an environment in which people feel comfortable contributing, try the following:
- Set explicit expectations: Managers should remember to communicate the expectation that everyone is allowed to contribute equally during meetings.
- Interrupt interruptions: Leaders must also act to safeguard equal contribution—when team members cut other team members off, point out that this has happened, and allow the original speaker to resume their point. Furthermore, contributions should be solicited from team members who haven’t yet spoken up.
- Stay focused on solutions: Take care to avoid assigning and emphasizing blame when things go wrong. Instead, use these episodes as opportunities for growth, learning, and evolution.
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5. Allow Everyone In the Organization to Be Human
With the imposter phenomenon discussion being so tied to our achievements in our working lives, it’s important to acknowledge a more complete picture of individual attainment and fulfillment. The best leaders understand that wellbeing is key to high performance, and that teams must be encouraged and empowered to prioritize it in the pursuit of success.
This means that leaders must emphasize the importance of holidays and rest, and avoid glorifying unsustainable working habits such as excessive overtime. Delegation should be encouraged, and nobody should be afraid to ask for help. Over-committed, lone-wolf employees who cannot detach themselves from work can become an unrealistic standard against which people experiencing the imposter phenomenon self-measure—even as those over-performers risk burning out over time.
Let your team members feel heard, valued, and understood while encouraging leaders to show empathy and self-compassion. Do all this while recognizing and celebrating the range of different working styles that come naturally to people, and you’ll be better able to create an environment where everyone can be productive and efficient.
If you would like to discuss how to create a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable organization, please contact us today.
A version of this article originally appeared in C-Level Magazine.