Do you ever feel like you don’t belong or that you’re a fraud? If so, you’re not alone. “Imposter syndrome” affects up to 90% of women and 80% of men at some point in their careers, according to research in Human Resources Director from The Hub Spot. And it’s not just entry-level employees who feel like imposters, or those who are new to a field. KPMG reports that 75% of executive women experience imposter syndrome.
But what if I told you that imposter syndrome is not an individual problem, but a systemic one? It’s a way for society to make people feel uncomfortable when they push the boundaries of the spaces they’re “supposed” to exist in. In many cases, I think it’s really just a way to keep people down. Don’t climb that rung on the corporate ladder; you don’t belong there. See how anxious you feel about it? Go back down where it’s safe.
Heavy load to bear
“The label of imposter syndrome is a heavy load to bear,” says the Harvard Business Review. “Imposter’ brings a tinge of criminal fraudulence to the feeling of simply being unsure or anxious.”
In this case, the system both creates the problem and penalizes people for experiencing the problem.
Imposter syndrome is isolating. It elicits a vicious cycle, because the people who suffer from it feel inadequate and that feeling itself holds them back, which fulfills their prophetic fear and perpetuates their perception that they’re inadequate. Repeat ad infinitum.
How to resolve imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome is society’s way of preserving the status quo and the existing power structure. That’s why it’s not enough to tell people to believe in themselves or level up their skills to boost their confidence. The real way to resolve imposter syndrome is to address the environment in which it’s occurring. Here are three strategies to try:
As a leader, it’s critical that you make it clear that anxiety and discomfort are NOT a sign that someone doesn’t belong. Open a dialogue, not just about imposter syndrome in general, but about people’s individual areas of strengths and weaknesses. Normalize discussing your own feelings of discomfort and competency gaps. Normalize delegating tasks that aren’t in your wheelhouse and taking on tasks that are. Crucially, normalize that you can have an area of weakness and still try something within that area. People shouldn’t be barred from new, unfamiliar spaces.
The onus is on leaders to create an environment of psychological safety where people feel not only comfortable taking risks, but are actively encouraged to do so. Leaders need to take risks themselves and make those risks visible to the team. Managers also need to reward risk-taking—whether or not it pays off. Of course, you should set guardrails so that your team knows where it’s truly safe to take risks, and where they must toe the line.
Lastly, as a leader, reject imposter syndrome as a label. Accept that feeling uncertain or anxious is a sign that you’re all making progress, pushing the envelope, breaking boundaries, innovating, taking risks…all good things. Reject the notion that feeling uncertain or anxious means feeling that you’re not supposed to be there.
Of course, bringing an end to imposter syndrome can’t happen overnight. But the first step is to acknowledge that it’s a product of systemic pressures, not an internal failing. If people are suffering from these feelings at your company, it may be more of a reflection on your organization than it is on the individual themselves. As a leader, you have agency over your team and your workplace environment. Use it to create an environment that fosters growth, innovation, and inclusivity.