As professionals, we may view others as highly intelligent, talented and successful, but how do we view ourselves? “Impostors” is probably not the answer most of us would provide, at least not publicly.
In reality, some of us will view ourselves as frauds, fearing that it is only a matter of time before someone discovers that we really do not belong in the spaces or positions we occupy.
Collectively, these feelings and fears are referred to as impostor syndrome. Coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Susan Imes, the term was based on their counseling sessions with women who felt incompetent, unintelligent, and made external attributions for their achievements — despite having records of success.
While the term “syndrome” suggests it may be a health condition, and early research indicated that it was a personality trait, studies have demonstrated that impostor syndrome has various origins, including our childhood experiences and the unrealistic competence standards that we establish for others and ourselves.
Who Feels Like an Impostor?
Gender and ethnicity can make some of us more susceptible to experiencing impostor feelings. This phenomenon has been primarily viewed as an individual-level issue, as suggested by the oft-promoted solutions of developing confidence and reciting affirmations to counter self-doubt.
However, the experience of women and professionals of color reveals that the triggers of and solutions to impostor syndrome may not lie in the individual. Instead, it is in the environment and spaces they occupy.
It is critical for organizations to examine how they may be engaging in a behavior I refer to as the “impostorization” of employees. The concept refers to policies, practices and seemingly innocuous interactions in the workplace that may contribute to employees feeling like a fraud, triggering a fear that others will discover they do not belong.
Ironically, one common way organizations may make employees feel like impostors is by encouraging them to “be yourself.” Authenticity is encouraged in the workplace given the benefits derived, including greater employee engagement and job satisfaction. But in reality, only certain employees (i.e., white males) are allowed to bring their “authentic selves” to work.
Data throughout the years show that the authenticity of white men is rewarded, influencing people’s judgments about their likelihood to be an effective leader. The authenticity of women and professionals of color, however, is discouraged.
Latinos, for example, are often advised to modify their appearance, body language, communication style (“don’t be so expressive”), or reduce their “accent” and anglicize their name when introducing themselves.
In a study published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, an interview participant stated, “….she (a native-speaking colleague) always made remarks about my accents, and it made me feel self-conscious … I felt so vulnerable in many ways. … The interaction hurt my self-esteem and increased my insecurity.” Employees that exhibit professionalism (which is narrowly defined by white male standards) find that they are promoted quickly.
Black women entrepreneurs echoed similar sentiments from other professionals of color in a study my colleague, Jason D’Mello and I conducted on their motivation for leaving their corporate jobs and embarking on the risky journey of self-employment.
Many professionals of color also expressed feelings of not belonging in the professional spaces they previously occupied. One mentioned that while she enjoyed wearing bright-colored attire because it reflected her bright personality, she was told it was inappropriate in the workplace. Women also noted that they were not allowed to wear their natural hair.
Consequently, they engaged in “identity switching,” altering their actions and language to fit in the environment. Once identity switching became too exhausting, these women chose to join the growing number of women of color entrepreneurs, which account for 90% of the new women-owned businesses annually.
Given the aforementioned expectations, it is not surprising that employees feel like impostors. The cultural norms that are rewarded essentially impostorize non-white employees by requiring them to leave their true persona at home and, instead, assume an identity that is not their own.
If organizations are committed to creating inclusive environments, it is imperative for leaders to examine the biases that foster impostor syndrome in employees and implement measures to increase their sense of belonging and the deservedness of the positions they occupy.
How to Avoid Impostorizing Employees
Closely examining your company practices that contribute to impostorization will help you avoid it moving forward. Here are some tips to help you along the way.
• Examine standards or norms that may be inadvertently advantaging some employees and disadvantaging others when deciding on promotions. If there is a lack of structural diversity in the organization, examine why that is; do the leaders in the organization possess certain traits or exhibit behaviors that are not related to performance but are, nevertheless, rewarded? It is not uncommon for employees to start wondering if they truly have what it takes to do well when there are not people who look like them in leadership positions.
• Affirm employee contributions. Performance evaluations are often comprised of observations about employee deficiencies and recommendations for improvement. While well-intentioned, this feedback may be internalized by some employees as evidence of incompetence. It is important to provide balanced feedback and highlight what the employee has done right. Emphasize that job achievements are a result of the employee’s skills and not external factors. Let them know you believe in their capacity to succeed.
• Embrace employees’ authenticity. If an employee pronounces his or her name a certain way, take the time to learn the correct pronunciation. Companies expect employees to learn and execute tasks effectively — the least employers can do is learn to pronounce a name correctly. I have yet to see a study that finds wearing natural hair or a pair of bright-colored shoes can adversely impact employee performance or a company’s bottom line. If you are telling employees to “be yourself,” then really allow them to be.
• Talk openly about your own experience with impostor syndrome. A study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science found that 70% of the U.S. population has experienced impostor syndrome at some point in their lives – including U.S. former first lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It is very likely that managers, at some point in their careers, have experienced it, too.
• There is power in normalizing the feelings of inadequacy that employees may feel, particularly when starting a new job. Take the time to let them know that they are not alone in this experience.
Angélica S. Gutiérrez, Ph.D. earned her B.A. in Political Science and Sociology with honors at UCLA, M.P.P at the University of Michigan, Ph.D. at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Center for Institutional Diversity and the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Recognized as one of the “World’s Best 40 Under 40 Business Professors” by Poets & Quants, Dr. Gutiérrez teaches Leadership, Negotiations, and Diversity Management at the undergraduate and graduate (MBA, MScM, Executive MBA) levels at Loyola Marymount University. She has presented her research on diversity and the impostor syndrome at national and regional academic conferences, and for organizations in the non-profit, public, and private sectors