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4 ways to spot an employee with imposter syndrome + how to help them

Who's at risk of imposter syndrome?

In today's demanding and competitive workplaces, imposter syndrome is rife, affecting junior and senior workers alike. Left unchecked, it poses significant risks to mental health and workplace productivity.

The psychological condition is also known as imposter phenomenon or imposterism. It shows up through persistent feelings of self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a “fraud”, despite evidence of one's competence and achievements.

Research for SEEK has found that around half of us – 55% of women and 47% of men – have experienced imposter syndrome at some point.

Organisational psychologist Dr Amanda Ferguson says the phenomenon exists on a spectrum. Some people feel it more than others, and on some days more than others.

But certain people in the workplace are particularly vulnerable to imposter syndrome, particularly newcomers and those with less experience.

Imposter syndrome also impacts people as they climb the career ladder, Ferguson says.

"You're more visible, you're more worried about people's perceptions, of making a mistake, and you may feel like you don't deserve that position."

Those who are underrepresented may also feel like imposters, she adds.

"This may be a younger person in an older work cohort, an older person in a younger workforce, a woman in a male-dominated environment, or people of colour or Indigenous people."

What's the problem?

Dr Ferguson says employers should treat the phenomenon seriously.

"It can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and burnout, and dramatically impact your employees' confidence."

The biggest trigger for those experiencing imposter syndrome is feeling like they’re not as experienced as they should be (44%). SEEK research shows imposter syndrome stops 1 in 3 job seekers putting themselves forward for a promotion or new job.

But imposter syndrome doesn't just impact the individual; it also affects workplace dynamics, Ferguson says.

"If you think you're not good enough, you're less likely to push yourself for fear of making a mistake. You may experience reduced motivation and creativity, which impacts performance, innovation and teamwork."

The phenomenon could also cost the organisation financially due to ensuing absenteeism and turnover related to mental health issues, Ferguson adds.

It’s important for leaders to recognise and address imposter syndrome within their teams.

"An understanding approach can help mitigate burnout, foster engagement and enhance productivity," Ferguson says.

Here are the telltale signs of imposter syndrome, and strategies for leaders to help their employees counteract this phenomenon.

Signs of an employee experiencing imposter syndrome

  1. They're isolating "Putting up walls can mean they're scared of being exposed as a fraud," Ferguson says. "This may manifest in not returning emails or being cagey, making it hard to talk to them."  

  2. They put themselves down "Those with imposter phenomenon can be very negative about themselves, and their behaviours can be self-sabotaging. This is usually because they fear risk-taking," Ferguson says.  

  3. They don't seem to be coping "They could be displaying signs of anxiety or stress, and they may attempt to opt out of certain tasks or projects," Ferguson says. "And after an accomplishment, they tend to feel relief instead of pride."

How to help an employee with imposter syndrome

  1. Assess the workplace "Is the workplace fair, safe and equitable? Does it foster good, healthy relationships? Is there bullying? Is it sexist? Do people feel marginalised? These are the questions you need to ask," says Ferguson. Once you're aware of any problems, you can implement the right solutions, she adds. "These may include ways to address gender bias or promote underrepresented identities. "Workplaces should be seen as affinity spaces where everyone is accepted, represented and supported."  

  2. Redefine roles and processes "If a role is not clearly defined or processes aren't clear, that's a fast track to imposter phenomenon," Ferguson says. "For example, the employee may believe the company didn't like them taking time off in lieu of overtime. Misunderstandings can play on people's minds."  

  3. Talk about it Being open about how common imposter phenomenon is and how it presents in others can be really helpful, Ferguson says. "Normalising the condition in group settings and sharing thoughts and experiences helps people better understand the condition and realise that they're not alone."  

  4. Challenge their perceptions If you detect imposter syndrome in one of your employees, it's about challenging these cognitive distortions with facts and evidence, Ferguson says. "Talk about why they deserve to be in their job, and that failures are also normal; no one is expected to be perfect."  

  5. Mark the wins It's important to acknowledge your employees' role in their own successes. "People tend to externalise their wins by saying things like 'I've just been lucky'. But things rarely just happen. We need to recognise people's part in something." Rituals are the perfect way to do this, she says. "If an employee has brought in a big client, for example, you might go out for lunch, give them a gift voucher, publish their success in the organisation’s newsletter, or name them at a meeting or awards ceremony. "Positive feedback is just as important as negative feedback." If employees feel clear on their role, respected for who they are, supported and appreciated, this pays dividends for themselves and the organisation, Ferguson adds. "Reducing imposter phenomenon is essential in fostering a healthier, more supportive, and empowering work culture where people feel safe, engaged, productive and ultimately, happy."

Source: Independent research conducted by Nature on behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4800 Australians annually.

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