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‘Imposter Syndrome’ – What’s in a Name?

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With survey data revealing a majority of UK workers still suffer the wobbles at work, leadership coach Deborah (Debbie) Green, shares her thoughts about ‘imposter syndrome’ and how to overcome it.

A survey from music licensing company PPL PRS in June asked 1,000 UK workers in the professional services sector how they feel in their place of work. 49 per cent of the respondents shared they suffer from low confidence during performance reviews; despite 71% of these feeling confident at other times.

The explanation for why employees may feel lacking in the working environment may be down to ‘imposter syndrome’. 

But what exactly is imposter syndrome?  

Imposter syndrome is a psychological condition where people undervalue, and feel that they are unworthy of, their successful attributes and achievements and harbour an innate fear of being “found out”. YouGov has found that half of Brits find themselves experiencing imposter syndrome, making it a common mental health condition in workplaces around the nation.  

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Imposter syndrome can affect anyone regardless of their seniority or level of experience. When people step into a coaching session they are who they are in that moment. People have the same hang-ups about whether they’re good enough, or will be caught out.

What is the impact of imposter syndrome? 

The impact of imposter syndrome changes from person to person, but those who have imposter syndrome tend to exhibit these behaviours

  1. You believe you’ve fooled others into thinking you’re more skilled or capable than you are;
  2. You credit your success to external factors outside of your own abilities, such as luck; and
  3. New tasks trigger feelings of anxiety and doubt, which you respond to with intense over-preparation, and relief when the task is done. 

This cycle of behaviours can also lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression as a result of imposter syndrome, and make a person feel burned out at work. 

Employers may think imposter syndrome manifests in their staff as nervousness handing in work or a lack of confidence when talking about their work, but in some cases, it has been seen that those with imposter syndrome overcompensate and provide a higher quality of work than they believe themselves capable.

Employers may think imposter syndrome manifests in their staff as nervousness handing in work or a lack of confidence when talking about their work, but in some cases, it has been seen that those with imposter syndrome overcompensate and provide a higher quality of work than they believe themselves capable.

The BBC spoke to Basima Tewfik, assistant professor of Work and Organization Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on the topic. Her study showed that those with imposter syndrome tend to excel even if internally they are suffering. 

What scenarios may affect you at work? 

Although imposter syndrome can be a factor in low confidence at work, PPL PRS found that almost half (46%) of respondents found that performance reviews are the main stress point when employees feel that they need a confidence boost.  

Other scenarios people found left them with feelings of low confidence were beginning new projects (39%), client meetings (31%) and internal meetings (29%). These are all scenarios where a person needs to demonstrate their knowledge in the field. 

The most common insecurities are a lack of confidence, questioning abilities, and little self-belief in the possibility of success – with workplace ‘firsts’ being a common cause of low confidence. Being first at anything, so the first day in a new job, first day as a manager, the first time you might be running a presentation or a panel interview or being part of an event that’s going on, can all be quite daunting.

How to overcome imposter syndrome? 

When it comes to imposter syndrome, it’s not something you get rid of with just a positive attitude; it’s a process. But there are steps you can take to redirect those feelings and boost your confidence in your work. 

In their survey, PPL PRS found that 60% of people use music to help build up their self-confidence at work when faced with a stressful scenario, with their reasons for listening to it being that it makes them feel less anxious (45%), more relaxed (35%) and more confident (33%). 

But the term, ‘imposter syndrome’, is problematic when it’s used to refer to low confidence as people who experience it are neither ‘imposters’ nor afflicted by any ‘syndrome’. There’s a huge danger of people self-diagnosing the condition without considering the nuances of such underlying anxieties as being lacking in confidence, or being insufficiently forthright to speak up in meetings. Fear by itself can be soul-destroying and prevent us from fulfilling our potential; with negative self-talk arising out from the mere expectation of being called out as an ‘imposter’. 

There are measures for overcoming low confidence and low self-esteem in the workplace, however.

brown and black turtle on brown floor
Frames from Your Heart Photo by Frames For Your Heart on Unsplash

Slow down 

Just breathe. Take a big deep breath, and plan. Give yourself time to do your planning and prep beforehand. Make sure you understand your role in the event or discussion, what you give and what you gain, and remind yourself that you’ve been invited to sit around the table because of who you are, not in spite of it. You’re there for a reason, and the role is yours to own.

Remember why you’re there 

As part of your preparation, include an affirmation of your skillset; a run-through of your skills and talents, and recognise that you have value to bring to the table. Remind yourself again that you’ve been invited to the table because you’re the expert in your field, to give yourself the confidence and self-belief that you’re there because you and your skills are wanted and needed.

Listen to music 

Music is a great tool for helping workplace anxieties, and I have used music in my coaching. I often have music just playing in the background because it relaxes my clients even though people are not aware of it, and once I understand the client’s preferences I might suggest to them, ‘have you considered using music as a way of calming you down?’. I’ve also encouraged them to use music as a way of visualising what they want their life to be about, and find a soundtrack that would sum up what they’re hoping for.

How can employers help with their employees’ imposter syndrome? 

Employers can help uplift their employees by playing music in the office. Choosing songs that have upbeat tempos and positive lyrics so that when employees need a boost of confidence or need something to tune out their negative thoughts, they’ll have the music to tune in to. 

Another option is implementing a company culture that incentivises positive language around tasks, to allow your workers the baby steps they need to look at their challenging goals with a positive attitude instead of anxiety around their performance and in turn helping them in building confidence at work. 

Deborah Green

Deborah (Debbie) Green is the owner and founder of Wishfish which supports clients to explore their individual potential and connect with others through wellness coaching.

Author

  • Deborah Green

    Deborah (Debbie) Green is the owner and founder of Wishfish which supports clients to explore their individual potential and connect with others through wellness coaching.

    View all Articles

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