Is Imposter Syndrome Holding Your Best Employee Back?

blog Apr 28, 2021

No doubt you have heard of the term ‘imposter syndrome’ before, but have you ever heard of it when it comes to our teams, our employees, amongst our staff? Most commonly as business owners, entrepreneurs and leaders we might talk amongst ourselves about this feeling which we refer to as imposter syndrome, but I don’t hear business owners discussing this as something which might be impacting their staff.


Before we consider how this might play out within our teams, let’s first understand what specifically it is we’re referring to here.


The term Imposter Syndrome was coined in 1978 by Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who explored the idea that people with this feel like they have only succeeded due to luck, not because of their talent or qualifications. The Oxford Dictionary succinctly defines it as the persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills.”


If you’ve experienced it before, and estimates are that 70% of us will at some stage, you’ll know the feeling and the thoughts that run through your head. Who am I to be doing this? Why would they value my opinion? I don’t know enough about this, I just got lucky… and all the other things.


So if we can all easily identify this feeling, it’s not hard to see how our team may also feel this way from time to time. Dr Valerie Young has spent decades researching and understanding this phenomenon, and has uncovered five different types of imposter syndrome that exist within organisations. Let me run through them for you so you can identify whether any of your team may be struggling with this right now.


#1 - The Perfectionist 

Dr Young explains that this is the type of person who feels like 99% is a failure. In the workplace this person might dwell on or obsess over that one point they forgot to mention in an otherwise stellar presentation, and thus consider the presentation a disaster as a result.


The great thing about perfectionists is of course that their behaviour is driven out of a true desire to do well, to do the right thing for the business, they are typically highly engaged and care about their role and the company. However, obviously this perfectionism can hold them back from taking action and getting things done. To help them don’t tell them to stop being a perfectionist, that won’t help, but do encourage them to keep moving forward, and that good enough is good enough … which may take some time and consistent effort.


#2 - The Expert

The Expert is like the knowledge focused version of the perfectionist. Instead of being focused on how things are done and achieved, they are focused on the quantity of their knowledge. The Expert can never know enough, they feel like they should always be reading, learning, taking more courses, getting more certificates. The Expert expects to know everything, even a minor lack of knowledge, not knowing 100% about every element of the topic at hand to them equates to failure.


The key challenge here of course is that this constant pursuit for complete knowledge will hold the expert back. They won’t put their hand up for opportunities and promotions because they feel like they never know enough and are never qualified enough.


To help the expert, encourage and praise their pursuit for development, whilst also communicating effectively that no one can ever know everything, they are striving for the impossible.



#3 - The Natural Genius

The Natural Genius believes that intelligence must be inherent and they measure success based on speed and ease. If it doesn’t come easily to them, if they can’t master it instinctively, it must mean they aren’t capable or good enough. Without ease and speed they see themselves as a failure. If they have to work hard or even struggle to learn and master something, they feel like an imposter.


Dr Young explains that the trick to helping the Natural Genius is to shift their mindset – moving them from a fixed to a growth mindset. Encourage and celebrate their learning process when things don’t come easily to them and help them create structures and methods for mastering new skills. Make the knowledge gap that they see as a failure, a normal and expected process.


#4 - The Soloist

I think we all may have come across a soloist before. If they don’t do the task themselves, then it doesn’t count. If they got help, they failed. The biggest challenge here is of course, if they are hesitant to ask for help there is a greater chance things won’t get done, or will not be done as well as they could have been.


To help the soloist to move forward we need to help them see the value of leaning into a wide range of resources and demonstrate how greater results can be achieved in doing this. A great trick Dr Young suggests is to ask them to take themselves out of the equation, and then plan what resources they would need to get the task or project done.


#5 - The Superhuman

Again, this is one I am sure we have seen, possibly we know a Superhuman or possibly we have fallen into this trap ourselves before (and yes I am owning this as something I may have done in the past). The Superhuman measures competence based on how many roles they can juggle and excel in simultaneously. These people feel like they have to be excelling in every area of life in order to be successful, anything short is failure.


To support a someone suffering from this superhuman imposter syndrome we need to find a way to explain and demonstrate that striving for this gold standard in every area of life at every point in time is only setting themselves up for perpetuating this cycle, because they are setting an unrealistic and often unobtainable expectation for themselves.


So, can you identify any of these behaviours within your team? I think it’s important to pay attention to this, because, as Dr Young found, these feelings of ‘failure’ when someone is suffering from imposter syndrome at work, are associated with a feeling of shame. If someone is feeling ashamed and like a failure, even if it’s coming from a mental construct that isn’t a reflection of reality, they simply can’t give their best at work.


You don’t want to have your best employees held back by these feelings. Our job as leaders is to identify these patterns and work with the individuals to move through them.


An invitation:

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