Ever feel like an impostor?

Impostor syndrome might not be all bad, since being oriented towards others pays off and helps build relationships

Photo by Tim Peterson on Unsplash

3 min read

Even many successful people harbor what is commonly called “impostor syndrome,” a sense of being secretly unworthy and not as capable as others think. People who are suffering from impostor syndrome are not pretending to be someone else, but rather doubt their abilities and feel like a fraud.

It disproportionately affects high-achieving people who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. First described by psychologists in 1978, it is often assumed to be a debilitating problem for people in their careers.

But research by an MIT scholar suggests this is not universally true. In workplace settings, at least, those harboring impostor thoughts tend to compensate for their perceived shortcomings by being good team players with strong social skills, and they are often recognized as such by their employers.

“People who have workplace impostor thoughts become more other-oriented as a result of having these thoughts,” says Basima Tewfik, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of a new paper detailing her findings. “As they become more other-oriented, they get evaluated as being higher in interpersonal effectiveness.”

Importantly, across her studies, she does not find that this interpersonal upside comes at the expense of performance.

Tewfik’s research suggests we should rethink some of our assumptions about impostor thoughts and their dynamics. For example, “the idea that having these thoughts at work is always going to be bad for you may not be entirely true,” she observes.

However, the researcher also recommends that these types of thoughts among workers should not be ignored, dismissed or even encouraged, given that she also found in her study that impostor thoughts lower self-esteem.

“There are far better ways to make someone interpersonally effective that may not come with well-being downsides,” says Tewfik.

The concept of the “impostor phenomenon” was originally put forth in a 1978 paper by two psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who initially focused their work on women with high-achieving careers and kept exploring the subject in subsequent work.

Even that original conceptualization observed that people suffering from the impostor phenomenon are often very socially skilled, an overlooked aspect of the issue that Tewfik decided to explore in greater detail. Her research includes fieldwork in firms, as well as experiments, to pinpoint the consequences of what she terms “workplace impostor thoughts,” both in causal and correlational terms.

For instance, Tewfik surveyed employees at an investment management firm to see which of them harbored workplace impostor thoughts, while collecting employee evaluations from their supervisors. Those employees with more impostor-type thoughts were seen by their employers as working more effectively with their colleagues, with no drawbacks on their productivity overall.

“I did find this positive relationship,” Tewfik says. “For those having impostor thoughts at [the beginning of the time period], two months later their supervisors rated them as more interpersonally effective.”

Tewfik then examined a physician-training program and repeated the process of surveying trainees who were honing their skills through practice interactions with patients. Similarly, those who more frequently reported workplace impostor thoughts were the ones who connected best with patients.

“What I found is again this positive relationship, those physicians in training [with more impostor thoughts] were rated by their patients as more interpersonally effective, they were more empathetic, they listened better, and they elicited information well,” Tewfik notes.

According to the researcher, there’s a clear chain of causality related to impostor thoughts, in which workers deploy compensatory mechanisms to thrive despite them: “Because you’re having impostor thoughts, you’re adopting an other-focused orientation, which is leading you to be more interpersonally effective.”

The data also suggest that workplace impostor thoughts are not a permanent feature of an employee’s mentality. People can shed those kinds of concerns as they become more established in their positions.

With material from mit.ed

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.