How to Help High Achievers Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Here is an excerpt from an article by and for the MIT Sloan Management Review. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

* * *

Managers can help employees turn fears into fleeting thoughts as opposed to permanent restraints.

Recently, we met a woman who told us the story of how she grew up on a Native American reservation and had to drop out of high school to care for her younger siblings. In her early 20s, she went back to school, where she excelled. Eventually, she went to dental school and earned four postsecondary degrees.

“Coming from my very challenging childhood, it felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there — like someone had made a mistake in admitting me to dental school, because I didn’t feel as smart as those around me,” she told us. Yet, while completing her degree, one of her professors encouraged her to pursue a specialty — a lucrative opportunity that was well within her capabilities — but she felt it was beyond her reach. Instead, she practiced as a general dentist, working for a government agency that provided care in rural communities (also a respected role, but not her initial career aspiration). Although it took a decade, she eventually overcame her initial self-doubt, developed a specialization in pediatric dentistry, and became an esteemed clinical professor in her field. Today, she helps students achieve their full potential — especially those who, like her younger self, doubt their capabilities and potential despite indications otherwise.

Many high-achieving people we know describe similar feelings of self-doubt. They’re plagued by a nagging sense that, despite their objective successes, they aren’t as capable as others believe. They have trouble attributing their high performance to their competence, and instead credit luck, tokenism, accident, or the help of others. In her book Lean In, former Meta chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg described the feeling this way: “Every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”

In the late 1970s, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who studied high-achieving professional women, gave this feeling the name imposter syndrome and described it as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” unaffected by evidence to the contrary. A KPMG survey of 750 female executives in 2020 found that this feeling persists: Seventy-five percent reported experiencing imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. Eighty-one percent said they think that compared with men, they put more pressure on themselves not to fail.

Other scholarship has identified the feeling in both men and women and among many ethnic and racial groups. As workplaces strive toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, high-achieving employees who belong to a minority or marginalized group — across gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and/or economic class categories — are particularly at risk of suffering from imposter syndrome, which can impair well-being and inhibit performance. Being the “one and only” can make it especially hard for people of color and women to feel like they belong. A newly minted Black female executive, for example, will likely be the only person from her demographic in the role at her company, given that only 1.7% of executive and senior-level officials and managers are Black women nationwide. (There are even fewer Hispanic and Native American women — 1.57% and 0.01%, respectively.)

We asked ourselves: How can managers identify imposter syndrome? And what can they do to ameliorate its negative impacts on employees while implementing organizational efforts to develop diverse and high-merit future leaders?

To retain high achievers, managers need to understand and respond to their unique challenges, of which imposter syndrome can be one. And to reach DEI goals, hiring diverse people is not enough; companies need to design initiatives that reduce the attrition of employees of color and women and keep employees who are high achieving and underrepresented. Fortunately, research shows that the negative effects of imposter syndrome can be mitigated through organizational and social support.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Morela Hernandez is a professor of public policy and business administration at the University of Michigan. Christina Lacerenza is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder.

* * *

Dear Reader:

If you are so inclined, please ask one colleague, or friend, to sign on by clicking here.

Thank you.

Bob Morris

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.