Written by Donna Bonfield | 13th May 2024

If you’ve ever felt like you’re not good enough at work, you’re not alone. Feeling like a fraud, feeling less than your colleagues or doubting your ability to do your job is known as “Imposter Syndrome”.

It happens at every level, from trainee to CEO – even someone with a successful career can feel like an imposter.

A survey of 2,000 UK employees conducted by Reed.co.uk, revealed just how common these feelings are, with 40% admitting to grappling with self-doubt at some point during their career.

With this in mind, here are five signs of Imposter Syndrome and how you can help yourself and your people to overcome it.

Five signs of Imposter Syndrome

  1. Self-doubt or low self-confidence

People with Imposter Syndrome can be very negative about themselves, put themselves down and find it difficult to accept praise or compliments. Because of this, when they do experience success, they are much more likely to downplay it or say they don’t deserve it.

  1. Perfectionism

As with many things, perfectionism has a positive and negative side. Being conscientious, productive and always striving to create the best work you can are good traits to have. But if someone doesn’t meet the high (often unachievable) standards or goals they’ve set themselves, they may become hypercritical and doubt their ability. Even if they do meet their goal, there’s always that feeling that they could have done better.

  1. Fear of failure

Employees with a fear of failure may over-prepare or overcompensate on tasks given to them because they fear they will do or say the wrong thing. This can lead to overworking and burnout.

Likewise they may be reluctant to share ideas or speak up in a meeting for fear of being wrong, or looking stupid in front of others.

Because of their self-doubt, they will not believe they are capable of more senior roles so are more likely to shy away from opportunities for promotion.

  1. Attributing success to luck

Similar to self-doubt, someone with Imposter Syndrome will struggle to take pride in their own success. They may say “I was lucky” when asked about an achievement, or attribute it to being in the right place at the right time or around the right people.

  1. Burnout

Imposter Syndrome can, but not always, lead to conditions such as burnout, anxiety and depression. Individuals may constantly worry about “being found out” or put too much stress on themselves to avoid failure and achieve ‘perfection’, all of which can cause their mental health to spiral.

Imposter syndrome not only has a detrimental impact on the individual suffering from it, but the wider business too. A manager with imposter syndrome could have little confidence in decision making and difficulty delegating tasks due to fear of being seen as incompetent. They may also be reluctant to take risks. This puts themselves and those they line manage at risk of underperforming or making mistakes, ultimately affecting your organisation’s bottom line.

Here are some suggestions of ways to support your employees with Imposter Syndrome.

Good management structure

A supportive work culture in which it is ok to make mistakes and where there is a focus on learning rather than blaming, will help individuals feel comfortable taking on challenges, and feel able to approach their line manager to discuss their worries and insecurities.

Culture will come from your managers’ own values and behaviours so ensure they know what is expected. Go further in training them to recognise the signs of Imposter Syndrome and give them the skills and confidence to have conversations about it, so they can create that supportive culture.

Our HR and People Essentials training courses [link] can refresh managers on how to have confidence in difficult conversations like this.

Provide mentorship or coaching

Coaching creates a safe space where the employee can open up and explore what makes them feel like an imposter, without fear of being judged.

It helps the employee to get a better understanding of themselves, their blockers and identify potential solutions for their self-doubt.

We’ve seen how coaching can improve confidence through our tailored coaching solutions specifically designed to address issues like Imposter Syndrome, led by our coach Donna.

Mentorship between an employee and a colleague they trust can also help uncover the route of their Imposter Syndrome. Others might be able to share their own experiences and provide constructive feedback. Ensure your mentors fully understand their role and have the appropriate skills to mentor well, through our Mentorship Skills offering.

Help employees reframe negative thoughts

Imposter Syndrome is driven by negative thinking and sometimes it’s hard to get out of that frame of mind. But individuals can switch their perspective to reframe those thoughts.

For example, remind employees that feeling outside of their comfort zone is normal – a bit of self-doubt is not a bad thing. They aren’t expected to know exactly what they are doing All the time.

Can employees switch their focus to see the positives of a new situation or challenge and how it is helping them to develop new knowledge and skills?

Encourage employees to focus on their strengths and what they can do well to make them feel more confident. Do this for yourself too.

If employees are having a hard time identifying what they are good at, they can seek input from  others – this can help give them a boost when self-doubt creeps in.

Set realistic goals

People in a constant state of trying to overachieve will often set goals that are unattainable, and their self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Work closely with individuals to manage their time and workload so they aren’t feeling overwhelmed. Help them set achievable goals, breaking them into manageable steps.

Emphasise that making mistakes along the way is part of the learning process and doesn’t equate to failure. Teach employees to embrace mistakes as opportunities for growth. Creating a learning culture helps with this – download our Learning and Development guide for more information.

Celebrate achievements

It’s good practice to celebrate each milestone and achievement, no matter how small, so that employees feel a sense of belonging and accomplishment.

By celebrating the small wins along the way, rather than the end result, they will gradually build the confidence to take on bigger challenges. Public recognition amongst teams, where appropriate, helps individuals to believe that colleagues see their value and reduces the feeling of being an imposter.

In short, Imposter Syndrome can affect anyone and it’s likely you’ve probably felt inadequate in your job at some time. Reminding yourself and your employees that you and they are good enough and deserve success can go a long way in helping to keep some of those thoughts away.

If you would like to learn more about our tailored coaching solutions, which can help address issues like Imposter Syndrome, please get in touch with Donna at [email protected]