How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome as a Roadblock to Career Development

young thoughtful Asian businesswoman executive in office

The phrase "imposter syndrome" is a common one in the workplace. Loosely, it's defined as not feeling good enough or feeling undeserving of the success you've achieved. Some with this mindset even feel they have fooled those around them into believing they are capable of doing their job. This feeling can leave many feeling like a fraud and like they don't deserve accolades or recognition for their hard work.

According to a KPMG study, seventy-five percent of executive women report having personally experienced imposter syndrome at certain points in their career, and eighty-five percent believe women in corporate America commonly experience this feeling. With such alarmingly high numbers, it may be time for leaders to raise awareness of this career struggle and consider a different approach to inspire the confidence and assurance employees need to have a fulfilling and positive experience at work.

What is the danger of imposter syndrome?

The real danger is when an individual's negative thoughts of self-inadequacy hold them back from growth. This can damage personal and professional relationships and mentally limit professional progress and development. An individual struggling with imposter syndrome may not have the confidence to apply for new roles, participate in special assignments, offer innovative ideas or even learn new things due to a fear of looking silly.

The good news for HR leaders and business owners is that there are ways to inspire and grow confidence in employees who struggle with this challenge.

"Positive reinforcement and guidance are so important," said Melanie Shook, GM/VP of ADP small business services - south region.

What is the root cause of imposter syndrome?

The root cause is a combination of personal history and societal factors. McLean Hospital, a Harvard psychiatric teaching hospital, says the insecurities that makeup imposter syndrome are often linked to life experiences, things like family dynamics and roles learned early in life. But that's not the only cause. Societal factors like racial or gender inequities can also contribute to or exacerbate the mindset, according to the Harvard Business Review, especially for women and women of color.

The root cause of imposter syndrome may differ based on the individual. Still, regardless of the reason, business owners and HR leaders should work to create an environment where employees are recognized for their value and skills, have equal opportunities for skill and career development and are fairly rewarded for what they accomplish.

Who experiences imposter syndrome most often?

Everyone can experience imposter syndrome to some extent, but women and underrepresented groups usually face it more often. As per HR Magazine, one survey found that men were 18 percent less likely to experience it than women. McLean Hospital noted that underrepresented ethnic groups also experience high levels of this feeling.

With these metrics in mind, business owners and HR leaders should review their people data to help ensure they are closing any gaps in pay, promotions and more. Creating an inclusive workplace where employees of all genders and backgrounds can feel free to innovate and try new things is one of the best ways to help individuals dealing with imposter syndrome overcome it.

I believe every obstacle we encounter in our career is a chance to learn, evolve, and deliver superior results. By looking back at our previous accomplishments, we can stay motivated and confident as we take on new challenges and continue to drive our success forward.

Njeri Nginyo, VP, assistant general counsel, ADP

How do you beat the imposter syndrome feeling?

You can beat the feeling with honesty, mentorship, and positive self-talk. And while that might sound like a magic formula, it's not. It's a process. One that takes time. Overcoming imposter syndrome does not happen overnight. It starts with being honest about feelings of insecurity with a trusted mentor.

"Speaking with other women leaders who have gone through similar experiences made me realize I was not alone," said Kristen Appleman, SVP and general manager, ADP TotalSource. "It provided a support network for me to leverage."

What can leaders do to help combat imposter syndrome?

It's unrealistic to think that HR leaders and business owners can alleviate or eliminate it altogether. Instead, leaders can think about making small, frequent positive touches with employees to help build their confidence over time. Connection and mentorship are the most effective tools to make a difference. Here are some tips to implement for the long haul.

  • Be open. When leaders are open about their journey, they inspire employees to share their struggles and challenges too!
  • Create forums for discussion. Whether it's a business resource group or a casual meet-and-greet with leaders who've struggled with imposter syndrome, creating avenues for discussion helps.
  • Provide positive reinforcement. When employees perform well, verbally affirm hard work and results.
  • Focus feedback on the work product, not the person, so employees know the feedback does not question their ability to succeed.
  • Lead by example with positive self-talk. Remember your value and speak confidently about your experiences. Admit mistakes when you're at fault, but don't be disparaging — employees will follow your example.

For additional resources on helping employees deal with personal and professional challenges, learn about the benefits of offering an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).