Impostor Syndrome – how it can help your career

You’re starting to panic. The project is a lot more complicated than you thought and the pitch requires that you dig deeper than you ever did before. Soon you fear they’ll have the impression that you can’t walk the walk – that you’re an impostor and you’ve been faking it all along.

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on every body, and they’re going to find me out.’ ” – Renowned author Maya Angelou

The term “impostor syndrome” was first coined in a 1978 study by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, who attributed the phenomenon to high achievers who feared that their professional shortcomings would reveal them as frauds in the workplace.

The term impostor phenomenon is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women. Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. – Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women

Initially thought to affect mostly women, recent studies show that the phenomenon is not gender-specific and that men are equally at its mercy. Furthermore, what once affected high achievers facing unrelenting pressure in their jobs, has now filtered down to the millennial generation and, in fact, to almost all of us.

The reason? Possibly attributed to the rise of social media and 24/7 access to the carefully curated lives of others, which leaves us vulnerable to unfavourable comparisons.

“Taking Facebook and Instagram as examples, they allow us to present our own filtered sense of reality, showing only what we want to show. This can lead to a person critically comparing their life with other people’s and using others’ posts as measures for successes and failures in their own life. The impact of this could be catastrophic feelings of low self-esteem, resulting in negative ‘I am’ statements, such as ‘I will never be able to be like that person’, or ‘I could never do that’”, the Mental Health Foundation explained in an article about the effects of social media on young people.

It’s no wonder a study by the International Journal of Behavioral Science revealed that 70% of people “will experience at least one episode of this Impostor Phenomenon in their lives”.

Cary Curtis, managing director of graduate recruitment agency Give A Grad A Go, told the website Global Young Voices: “The anxiety of being ‘exposed as a fraud’ is extremely common amongst graduates and lack of experience could be the main culprit, especially for those who are moving into roles within highly competitive industries.”

Depending on your personality or background, this syndrome can develop into anxiety and depression. But it can also have an upside.

positive side of impostor syndrome

We sat down with one of Templar’s founders, Joseph Bikart, who believes that we all suffer from some form of impostor syndrome at some point in our lives. He explained that impostor syndrome can be a vital indicator that you are open to growth.

On the other hand, the absence of the syndrome could indicate a belief that one is overly and unduly self-satisfied. He said people can use it as a “wake-up call, or a knocking on the door” and can use it to save themselves from the alternative – stress and low self-esteem.

“It is not an anomaly or a fault; I believe it’s just part of our nature. In Hamlet, Shakespeare writes: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’

The positive version of impostor syndrome is the hunger to learn. We’re always going to find a lot of things we’re not good at; this could lead to much suffering, but trying to establish what we need to learn is far more positive.

“At the same time, we are not recommending that people get inoculated with impostor syndrome, even if it can have positive effects. In fact, there is a very effective vaccination against it – which is to loosen one’s grip – or more specifically, to loosen the ego’s powerful grip on our every thought and action.

“One way of achieving this is by focusing on the ‘other’; whether they be your clients, your partners, or anybody else. At Templar, for example, we could easily become self-conscious when we are asked to advise very senior leaders – people with incredible qualifications and track records of success. But if you replace this self-consciousness with a total focus on your client, on their expectations and their growth, you eradicate a great source of impostor syndrome. Suddenly, you are not the centre of your own attention anymore.

“So, simply put, don’t obsess over what people think of you; focus on your clients, your audiences, and how they will benefit from your help and advice. Overall, if the aim is to rid ourselves of impostor syndrome, we should get comfort from the fact that even when we feel its presence, it should be viewed as a form of calling, the inner necessity to learn and to grow,” Joseph added.


“The best CEOs are always engaged on that learning path, they learn from their teams, learn from their competitors, learn from their clients, they learn all the time,” Joseph says.

“The most demanding jobs are demanding because they involve the management of risk and certainty and, by definition, we can’t get it right every single time. The same is true about any job. It’s not about getting it right every single time.

It’s more about doing the best with what we have and, if we generally feel we’ve done our best, this should be a great measure of success.”

Joseph Cilona, a Manhattan psychologist, told the website mentalfloss: “If you can find a mentor in your field who understands the unique demands of your job, that might be even better. Imposter syndrome thrives on isolation.”

Katherine Schafler, a private psychotherapist in New York City, told the same website: “Finding the right workplace culture is also key. Any culture that doesn’t normalise the anxiety and identity challenges of beginning a new career or working in a high-pressure job will be a breeding ground for imposter syndrome.”

Impostor syndrome and ORGANISATIONS of the future

The good news is that modern employers are more equipped to deal with workplace anxieties like imposter syndrome. Joseph says the way companies are run and people are managed has evolved substantially in the last few decades.

“Initially, what we’ve seen is an evolution from companies being product or service-centred to being client-centred,” he explained. But increasingly that is not enough.

Joseph recommends that organisations have two areas of focus:

“Clearly, one of these must remain the client. This will never change. The other area of focus is your employees’ learning experience. Because of the enormous growth in the talent pool available (including the profusion of MBAs over the past few decades), success relies increasingly on attracting and retaining the best of the best.

“These people know that they can easily be poached by your competitors. Monetary compensation is not going to make the difference in the long term. What will create the greatest employee loyalty is the sense that they have found a place to grow, to learn, to feel valued and to develop and be recognised for their thought leadership.

“This is the ultimate remedy against impostor syndrome. Our bet is that a company’s success in the future will rely more and more on how it manages this alignment between its own ethos, and individual aspirations.”

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