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Can Imposter Syndrome Be a Good Thing?

imposter syndrome

“If you don’t have imposter syndrome your first three months at a new job, check your ego…If you still have imposter syndrome six months into a new job, check your boss.”

This advice from Canadian Executive Coach Katy McFee caught our eye a few months ago. Imposter syndrome is that nagging feeling that you’re not as experienced, skilled or talented as you “should be” in your role or job. McFee goes on to explain, “It’s natural – maybe even beneficial – to have a bit of imposter syndrome as you’re taking on a new role. There are a lot of unknowns, and it’s normal to ask yourself if you’re up for the task. That’s when you double down, access resources and put 110% into figuring it out…[It’s] a natural response to growth and high performance. Here’s your friendly reminder that if you’re feeling some imposter syndrome, you’re probably doing something right. Not the opposite.”

Imposter syndrome affects us all (well, most of us). Up to 82% of people suffer from it, so it’s a pretty common occurrence. (For a refresher on what exactly it is, read more here.) Yet, when we last covered the topic, we asked for feedback from professionals we knew and were met with unusual silence. What gives? Perhaps it’s the nature of imposter syndrome that keeps those who suffer from it (which, again, is MOST of us) silent. Fast forward two years, and we think – we hope – the narrative is changing. We found this take from McFee particularly refreshing because it cuts to the heart of when imposter syndrome is healthy and, dare we say, beneficial.

A Healthy Dose of Imposter Syndrome

One could say that the opposite of imposter syndrome is overconfidence. Having overconfidence, especially during a job search and the start of a new job, can be a double-edged sword.

“Overconfidence hinders a person’s ability to truly grow and develop within their career path. They walk into every new job with the belief that they already know it all, have nothing else to learn, and everything to gain. But in reality, feeling overconfident at work can lead to accidents, conflict, and poor quality of work,” writes SYNERGY contributor Savanna Jordan.

“Much of the serious psychological research tends to start from the same assumption that imposter syndrome is unequivocally detrimental,” says University of Pennsylvania Wharton researcher Basima Tewfik. “[But] having imposter thoughts actually improves interpersonal performance at work: helping people, cooperating, and encouraging others. It seems that when employees feel that their competence is lower than others think, they may be spurred to prove themselves on an interpersonal level.”

The key to taking advantage of imposter syndrome when you first start a job, as McFee and Tewfik point out, is to use it as a vehicle to humble yourself, learn, observe, and collaborate.  

When Imposter Syndrome Becomes a Problem

Now let’s turn to the second half of McFee’s advice: as it pertains to lasting imposter syndrome.

“Once you have been in the role for a while, you should no longer feel this way. At that point, if you are still feeling inadequate, you may be working with a team or boss who’s not supporting you and making you feel valued and heard,” McFee writes.

Plenty of experts agree.

“Despite being something that affects people at an individual level, the relationship between toxic workplaces and wellbeing is well established. It seems that the impostor phenomenon breeds from a mix of genuine personal doubt over work abilities and the collective experience of a toxic work culture,” write researchers and academics Amina Aitsi-Selmi and Theresa Simpkin.

Valerie Kennedy, Founder and Managing Principal at Deicode 360, adds that it can trickle down from the top.

“Imposter syndrome can…cause leaders and managers to become hyper-alert to the limits of their talents. Especially if they are concerned about whether they are effective, innovative thinkers who can drive new growth and value…without running out of road,” she explains. “The impact of imposter syndrome on leaders can [then] have a domino effect in an organization. The fallout of defensive behaviors and posturing can cast a shadow over teams, divisions, business units and C-suites…The resulting outcomes can create organizational risks, poor talent development, and blind spots.”

So, imposter syndrome breeds imposter syndrome within organizations? Possibly. Studies show that women in STEM and black and Latina women may struggle disproportionately in a toxic environment due to “the intersecting challenges of racism and sexism.” A University of Texas at Austin study found that this type of imposter syndrome can be especially damaging to the mental health of minorities (minority students in this case).

For steps to combat imposter syndrome when it’s gone on too long or has affected your health and wellbeing, look at our previous tips here. If you’ve recently been placed in your job through The HT Group, be honest with your recruiter when they check-in. Sometimes just acknowledging your feelings and talking them through can provide the perspective you need to determine whether you’ve got a “healthy dose” of imposter syndrome or not.