How to Reduce the Impact of the Imposter Phenomenon

The imposter phenomenon – also known as imposter syndrome – is associated with several adverse outcomes in the workplace.

The imposter phenomenon is not often discussed in organizations, but individual sufferers should know they are not alone. Research suggests that around 70 percent of people in all industry sectors will experience ‘imposter’ feelings at some point in their careers and lives. So, what can training professionals do to reduce its impact and help employees?

What is imposter syndrome?

The imposter phenomenon – also known as imposter syndrome – is associated with several adverse outcomes in the workplace, including lost opportunities, talent mismanagement, and poor mental well-being. But understanding the phenomenon and managing it can help reduce its impact and enhance an organization’s inclusive practice.

A dictionary definition of the imposter phenomenon says it is characterized by doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments, accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite evidence of one’s ongoing success. But it is an intense feeling of intellectual phoniness, despite successes, and not a real imposter – a false identity or title for the purpose of deception.

The imposter phenomenon can prevent individuals from recognizing their knowledge, skills, and capabilities – and mean they fail to put themselves forward for promotion or new tasks. This has a huge impact on the organization they work for, so it is important for training professionals to ensure everyone recognizes the signs – and vital for the business to support those who are experiencing it.

Tackling the imposter phenomenon

By tackling the imposter phenomenon, the retention rate of employees increases, allowing companies to increase existing employees’ mobility and not rely solely on costly external hires. It also helps create a more collaborative, productive, and transparent organization with diverse teams. One of the best ways to tackle the imposter phenomenon is by creating a more inclusive workplace.

The first step is acknowledging the imposter phenomenon and creating a safe psychological environment to encourage the calling out of imposter chatter. It is important for training professionals to help employees identify their strengths, increase their confidence, and create a platform for people to feel safe and comfortable to say what they have done positively.

Companies need to create a place where positive feedback is the same as ‘developmental’ feedback and where discussions around strengths used at work are common. Also, increasing supportive relationships where employees feel valued and heard will help reduce the impact of imposter chatter and decrease self-doubt.

Training leaders must implement and promote services such as mentoring, coaching, and counseling – and show individuals where they can get the support they need. Mentorship programs, for example, are helpful as they provide guidance and support to succeed. Individuals have someone they can go to in times of doubt, who can guide them through their challenging period, and once they conquer it, their confidence will increase. Having counseling services available also allows individuals to use them when they need them the most – and makes them feel that their company is investing in their well-being.

Another important aspect is providing resources for teams to increase their knowledge and understanding of the imposter phenomenon and how they can help those experiencing it. Run courses, training, and awareness weeks, for example, and put up posters around the office highlighting the imposter phenomenon – while ensuring that individuals can find out more privately. Some individuals feel a sense of shame, so it is important they can seek help privately.

These steps will help to create a more inclusive workplace, but self-doubt can still find its way into people’s working lives if they fear being called out or seen as incompetent when speaking up. Therefore, it is important for organizations to create a space where people feel safe and comfortable speaking up.

To make an inclusive environment, start by having explicit expectations. During meetings, for example, ensure that managers explicitly set expectations and communicate that everyone can contribute equally and that behavioral expectations are clear. Another useful technique is interrupting interruptions – ensuring that business leaders prevent anyone from being silent. Set an expectation that everyone’s voice is needed, important, and valued, and encourage individuals to speak up for others. And focus on solutions – never blame individuals when things go wrong. Instead, see these as moments of growth, learning, and evolution.

Great well-being is key to high performance, so managers must encourage and empower their teams to do the same. It is crucial for team members to feel heard, valued, and understood. Managers need to understand that showing empathy and self-compassion can help their teams thrive and become more productive and efficient.

Employees at all levels should be encouraged to take holidays and break to rest, delegate more, or ask for help when needed. This, in turn, helps individuals experiencing the imposter phenomenon know that it is OK to ask for help and that they are not incompetent.

Training professionals have a key role to play in ensuring all individuals’ different working styles are recognized and celebrated – creating an environment where everyone who can excel can achieve their potential and increase productivity, creativity, and efficiency.

Jonathan Walpole
Jonathan Walpole is a global inclusion director at GP Strategies. He is an experienced inclusion expert who specializes in working with human resources (HR), learning and development (L&D), and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) professionals to understand their talent challenges. He then develops, tailors, and embeds a range of inclusion-based solutions and programs to support clients’ business objectives.