Managing Employees who suffer from “Impostor Syndrome”

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Self-doubt and having feelings of uncertainty about your skills at work is very common and normal. Studies actually claim that more than 70 percent of people experience “impostor syndrome” at one point in their careers.

But what is “Impostor Syndrome”?

“Impostor Syndrome” is defined as having constant feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt even when you achieve success. People who deal with this syndrome feel like they’re frauds and that they lack competence and don’t deserve the success that they have achieved. It is a psychological pattern in which the person is constantly scared of being exposed as a fraud at some point in time. Impostor Syndrome can happen at any age, regardless of gender, industry, and career level.

What triggers Impostor Syndrome?

The first thing that you need to understand is that Impostor Syndrome isn’t the same as having low self-esteem as highly successful people often suffer from it. Actually, some researchers linked it to perfectionism, especially among women and scholars.

Identifying the signs of Impostor Syndrome

Impostor Syndrome has previously been associated with being a woman in the past. But research actually suggests that men are more likely to suffer from it but they rarely talk about it. Putting gender to the side, there are a number of signs that can tell if an employee is suffering from “Impostor Syndrome”:

Reluctance to take initiative

Feeling reluctant to take initiative and grab opportunities at work can signal low self-esteem. Your employee may turn down promotions, new projects or other tasks because they feel that they’re not competent enough to do it right. Another sign is hesitating to highlight accomplishments and achievements.

Unhealthy Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a major red flag when it comes to Impostor Syndrome. While many people label themselves as perfectionists, you need to be on the look out for those who are actually tangled up by their perfectionism. Real perfectionists set unhealthy and unrealistic goals for themselves and then beat themselves up when they don’t meet them. They are terrified of failure which leads to feelings of anxiety and obsessive behavior. Their perfectionism is tightly related to their fear of being exposed as frauds.

Workaholism

At first glance, workaholism might appear to be a good thing as the employee who constantly arrives before everyone or stays late can seem like a great asset. But you need to be aware of what drives the employee to do excessive work. If the employee is motivated by the belief that he/she is not competent or skilled enough and need to work harder (and longer) to measure up to their colleagues, this might signal that they suffer from “Impostor Syndrome”.

Individualism

Employees who don’t seek help from others and feel they need to do everything on their own to prove their worth might actually suffer from “Impostor Syndrome”. They believe that asking for help will disclose them as impostors and frauds who can’t do their jobs.

How can HR help employees who suffer from “Impostor Syndrome”?

Train managers to better understand and support employees

Most managers try to encourage employees who show signs of self-doubt by giving them a pep talk such as: “You can do it”, and “We chose you for this task as you’re the best one to do it”. When you say such things, you are actually arguing with the critic inside the employee – the little voice within that keeps telling them that they are not good enough, they’re frauds, and that people are going to find out that he/she is a fraud.

Managers need to engage with self-doubt instead. Make sure that the employee understands that uncertainties and self-doubt are a natural part of work and that you feel the same way every now and then. Your goal should not be to enhance the employee’s self-confidence, but rather, to help the employee manage and regulate their emotions. This way, the employee will be able to differentiate between what is “real” and what is “created” by their inner critic.

Create a culture that is supportive and tolerant

A company culture with a low tolerance for failure will encourage perfectionism and workaholism. Take a good look at how your company perceives failure; is it a disaster or a learning opportunity? It’s important to convey a clear message to your people that mistakes do happen and that they don’t have to be afraid of it or to feel ashamed when it happens.

Encourage your senior managers, to share their insecurities and experiences with failure at work. Make sure that your employees understand that no one feels confident the entire time.

This will help employees feel safe to open up, and creates a culture that learns from its mistakes – rather than just avoid them.

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