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Brain circuits

Four ways leaders can mitigate the effects of imposter syndrome among employees

Published 1 June 2021 in Brain circuits • 2 min read

Imposter syndrome refers to the idea that some people feel they have reached their position not through qualifications and competency, but through luck or other outside influence. Marginalized groups in particular are often linked to this feeling, although it can affect anyone. This syndrome is often viewed as something individuals need to grapple with from within themselves, but research shows that the environment also has a big influence. For this reason, we prefer to refer these these feelings as “imposter feelings” – rather than imposter syndrome – which implies an internal disorder than needs to be fixed within the person. Organizational leadership should be looking at the environment they create to see if it may be the root cause of imposter feelings.  

Impostor feelings can have detrimental consequences for individuals well-being but also for their performance. Therefore it is very important that leaders mitigate these insecurities among employees. Here are four ways to do that:  

Acknowledge that imposter feelings are real. Even if you don’t experience them personally, know that they are out there and impact individuals in a variety of different ways. 

Include them in the HR review process. People who experience imposter feelings may need extra support until the culture is more inclusive.  

Make it clear why people from underrepresented groups were selected for their role. Quotas and targets, while sometimes necessary, can exacerbate people’s imposter feelings. There should be a systematic process for making it clear why underrepresented people are hired with a focus on their competencies and the value they bring to their team, not their group identity. 

Visibly lead by example. Share your imposter feelings as a supervisor. Lead inclusively by openly sharing your feelings of vulnerability and demonstrating how you value each member of the team.  

Rather than viewing imposter feelings as something that come from individuals’ characters, it is important leaders recognize the role the environment they create plays in whether people feel like a validated and valued member of the workplace who deserves to be there.  

Authors

Jennifer Jordan

Social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Jennifer Jordan is a social psychologist and is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD. Professor Jordan’s teaching, research, and consulting focus on the areas of digital leadership, ethics, influence, and power. Professor Jordan has received specialized training and certifications in lie- and truthfulness-detection, as well as in conflict resolution within organizations. She is Program Director of the Leadership Skills for the Digital Age program.

Sanne Feenstra

Sanne Feenstra

Assistant Professor of Economics and Business at the University of Groningen

Sanne’s research centers on Human Resource Management and Organizational Behaviour with a focus on Psychology and social aspects of power and leadership. She has PhD from the Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen.

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