Is your imposter syndrome actually making you better at your job?

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Imposter syndrome has long been seen as a detrimental condition, certainly by those who feel it, but this lack of confidence could actually be to your advantage.

Those of us who occasionally suffer from imposter syndrome – that unnerving feeling that our abilities are being overestimated by other people – might believe that such lack of confidence is a hindrance to potential success. Thinking of ourselves as unworthy and worrying that someone will one day see through our charade piles on pressure in the work arena.

A recent study by Basima Twefik, assistant professor of work and organisational studies at MIT, however has shown that behaviours exhibited by ‘imposters’ as they try to compensate for their feelings of self-doubt, can actually serve to make them good at their jobs.

Rather than resisting or trying to overcome the feelings of inadequacy, it seems that by leaning into them and putting extra effort into communication, imposters can outperform their non-imposter peers in interpersonal skills. So, says Tewfik, the trait most imposters dislike about themselves may in fact be driving them to improved performance.

Workplace imposter syndrome has been felt by over 70% of us at some point in our careers according to the International Journal of Behavioral Science. Pressure-points vary widely across careers, but typically the internal symptoms are universally the same.

Imposters tend to be perfectionists, feeling a necessity to be the absolute best at what they do. Not meeting these perfectionist goals causes an imposter to ‘feel overwhelmed, disappointed, and overgeneralise themselves as failures’. These feelings lead to a cycle within the work arena where imposters won’t allow themselves to accept positive feedback.

For example, anxiety about underperforming might lead to an imposter to over-prepare for a presentation, which when successfully delivered leaves the imposter feeling that the task should have been easier and they could have spent less time preparing for it. Conversely, delivering successfully on a project they feel they have procrastinated over will lead the imposter to feel they were simply lucky on this occasion, rather than attribute their success to their ability.

Tewfik’s forthcoming report, unique in identifying real benefits to imposter syndrome, asserts that imposter syndrome can be principally defined by the gap in competence self-perception compared to how competent an imposter actually is. This applies to their social standing among colleagues as well as their work quality.

Tewfik’s tiered research among office-based staff, late-stage medical students and then a group of subject posing as job seekers found that imposters were better collaborators, more interpersonally effective, better listeners and more empathetic, all performing equally to their non-imposter peers in their ‘competence behaviour’.

Commenting on her findings Tewfik said; “A lot of people sort of paint [imposter syndrome] as this thing that’s holding you back. So, we would expect, for example, that maybe you’d be a poor performer. There’s actually no significant difference [in competence] between those who are induced to have imposter thoughts and those who are not.”

“All of this together makes me pretty excited,” she says. “There might be this upside, and maybe we should start to think about harnessing it.”

Once considered a debilitating condition, this new research confirms that imposter syndrome actually motivates us to work harder in order to prove ourselves, it also pushes us to work smarter to upskill and plug any knowledge gaps.

Adam Grant, organisational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks imposters should embrace their condition. He believes that rather than trying to help workers overcome their condition, imposter syndrome should not be viewed as detrimental, commenting that Tewfik’s research “reveals that those doubts are normal and even healthy. Instead of holding us back, they can propel us forward”.

Entrepreneur and professor of marketing at New York University, Scott Galloway agrees that the way forward for imposters is to bypass the negative emotion component of their condition and instead harness its potential. Commenting no Tewfik’s research in a recent podcast Galloway said; “In those moments where you feel like an imposter… you realise ‘I have something to prove’, so you’re not complacent.

“Hey, you know what, this might be a moment for confident humility where I can recognise how little I know and yet have a strong conviction in my capability to learn.”

The upshot of Tewfik’s research is that imposters need not fear their condition but rather embrace it for the positivity it lends to their approach to everything they do.


Posted by The Secret ‘Imposter’ Businesswoman
Images courtesy of Press Association