8th October 2020

Impostor Syndrome: How to Help Your Staff Beat a Confidence Killer

4th September, 2018

Kate Palmer

Imposter syndrome can have far-reaching consequences in the workplace. Dream jobs can turn into missed opportunities, promising candidates can stagnate during interviews, and productivity levels are affected.  


It’s crucial businesses tackle this silent menace with constructive, confidence boosting techniques. Here’s how you can achieve this.


Imposter syndrome


Professional self-doubt/self-sabotage is a curious issue, but it’s not a new phenomenon. It got the name imposter syndrome in 1978 from psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Since then, it’s become well documented by many professionals, most of whom feel a sense of relief they’re not alone.


Dr. Christian Jarrett of The Psychologistdefines the condition:


“There are three defining features of impostorism. The first is a feeling that other people have an inflated perception of your abilities. Second is a fear that your true abilities will be found out, and third is a persistent tendency to attribute successes to external factors, such as luck or disproportionate effort. The condition is particularly likely to strike when a person starts a new job or takes on new responsibilities. Ironically, the feeling that one is a fraud can inspire greater effort and conscientiousness thus leading to more success and promotion, thereby triggering another round of impostor feelings."


It’s common for employees at any level of business hierarchy to suffer from it. Whether they’re managers, executives, apprentices, or interns—imposter syndrome is there and waiting to strike. While it showcases humility (an endearing personality trait), its affects can be far-reaching and damaging for employers and employees.


The inverse is the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning and Justin Kruger’s 1999 study (Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments)found that people of low ability can have an exaggerated sense of superiority.


This is due to a lack of metacognition (self-awareness). This phenomenon explains why incompetent employees sometimes hold the mistaken belief they’re delivering extraordinary results. There’s a Shakespeare line that sums it up pretty well: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”


The bizarre thing about imposter syndrome is it inhibits high-performing employees—the ones who should be over-confident about their abilities. But with a new age of employee well-being and ethical leadership upon us, it’s possible to tackle imposter syndrome and its pervasive ways.


How to help your staff


Challenging an employee’s inner critic is a way of promoting realistic thinking. It stops individuals from succumbing to pessimism and negativity. Imposter syndrome is your employee’s inner critic getting the better of them—a nagging voice in their head telling them they’re not good enough.


Harvard Business Reviewput it this way:


“The negative impact of that voice is tremendous. If someone on your team is hampered by a harsh inner critic, they’re likely to talk themselves out of sharing their ideas and insights. Held back by self-doubt, some of your most talented people will shy away from leading projects or teams, or put off going for the big opportunities – new clients, new business lines, innovative moves – that could help your business grow.”


There are a number of industry-leading tactics that can unlock the full potential of your staff. And here they are:


·     Acknowledging imposter syndrome


The first step is acknowledging it exists. As Pauline Clance(one of the psychologists who determined the issue) said: “‘Reading about it, hearing about it, talking about, especially at workshops with other people experiencing IP, helps them begin to identify the symptoms.”


If you’re up front about discussing self-doubts, it can be a cathartic release for your employees. Bear this in mind for your onboarding process in particular, as it can go a great way to helping ease fears before they start their job.


·     Mentorship


Mentoring is an excellent way to boost confidence levels and halt the effects of imposter syndrome. As an example, you could try pairing a young new starter with an experienced staff member.


This level of guidance can be essential in helping staff flourish. It can set them at ease, teach them the basics, assist with any skills gaps they have, and help them develop into the role naturally.


This is particularly important now that Millennials and Generation Zs are entering the workforce. It’s common knowledge they’re at greater risk of anxiety and depression. Taking them under your wing and guiding them can be an encouraging and wonderful experience for them—liberating, even. It can help banish those inner demons and bring out their talent.


·     Encourage staff to open up


Business wellness schemes can support your staff through difficult periods. Opening up is one of the best policies. When employees know they’re supported, it can offer a great deal of therapeutic value.


Many modern businesses choose to have a wellness scheme to support staff members at all levels. At Peninsula, our human resources advice, as one example, includes promoting an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).


Any business can adapt this to provide one-to-one assistance for staff members. The end goal is to boost their wellbeing, a common example overcoming anxieties. New starters may feel embarrassed to admit they’re having these self-doubts. But this is where you can excel as a business—step in and help them overcoming their fears.


By tackling the issue head on, you can avert issues and increase productivity.


·     Get realistic about mistakes


Employees fear mistakes. But they are an inevitability—at every level of a business. If you create a business culture that doesn’t see mistakes as failures, there’s less pressure on people to be perfectionists.


A big concern for those suffering imposter syndrome is making errors. They’ll have worries about it costing them their job. But if your business has an open culture that sees mistakes as only human, then staff will feel less guilty about them.


·     Reframe their thoughts


Make it clear to staff they’re hired due to their skillset. With a strong support network (such as the onboarding process), you can challenge their thoughts and help them overcome lingering self-doubt.


It’s an internal script your employees have to develop. Over time, it can help to write off self-deprecation or outright negativity.


To complement this, you can also aim to help staff think positively outside of work. The reality is, many employees spend their downtime worrying about their job (or, worse, taking up their spare time answering emails and completing projects). Encourage a genuine work/life balance to help limit the stress this can create.


How to help yourself


With the above in mind for business owners, what about if you suffer from imposter syndrome? The good news is there are ways to alleviate the symptoms.


First off, know that you’re in good company. It’s a common issue that’s affected a wide variety of people, from great authors such as John Steinbeck and Maya Angelou, to the first man on the Moon, to geniuses such as Albert Einstein.


The latter chose to confide in a friend: “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”


Every day, tens of millions of people struggle with imposter syndrome. But how can you overcome your niggling doubts? Take up some positive reinforcement habits to alleviate symptoms and remember the below points:


·     Keep in mind seemingly confident colleagues aren’t necessarily doing a better job than you.

·     Perform to your standards—do your best and see how it plays out.

·     Don’t compare yourself to other employees.

·     Reflect on everything you’ve accomplished—is your successes really due to luck, or is it down to hard work, graft, and skill?

·     Embrace your imperfections and recognise it’s human to make mistakes.

·     Try to rewire your thoughts away from negativity—remind yourself you’re in the role with good reason.

·     Take advantage of any business wellness schemes your employer has—Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), for example, can work wonders for overcoming imposter syndrome.

·     Take proper time out—rejuvenate in your down time to fully unwind and encourage positive thinking.

Kate Palmer

Kate Palmer is the associate director and legal director at Peninsula UK. Global business consultants established in 1983, Peninsula champions employee support through wellness schemes and an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). It currently helps tens of thousands of SMEs manage their day-to-day activities

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