Donna Michael (name changed), 33, a sales executive at an IT firm, was well-liked by her peers and colleagues at work. Many of them described her as "personable, empathetic and extremely friendly," she recalls. However, there were spells when she was alone where Michael felt an impending sense of doom and thought that those compliments weren't well-deserved by her or weren't meant for her. "I felt that this wasn't really me. I was fooling everyone into believing that I was this really nice person when deep down, I think I really am not."
Michael suffers from what is commonly known as impostor syndrome (IS): a persistent belief that all your achievements and present success have been the result of luck and not competence. To those who suffer from IS, it feels as if you're harbouring this secret and that – any time now – someone is about to "find you out" and expose your true incompetence. And while it may largely come across as a negative trait, researchers have been discovering the upsides to IS. MIT scholars have revealed that those who had IS showed better interpersonal skills - they were more empathetic, they listened better, and they elicited information well. The data also suggest that workplace impostor thoughts are not a permanent feature of an employee's mentality; people can shed those kinds of concerns as they become more established in their positions.
Psychiatrists and organisational psychologists help deepen our understanding of the condition, laying out the issues it can create and the surprising benefits it offers.
Signs, symptoms and origins
Saloni Diwakar, an organisational psychologist, researcher, educator and founder-director of Nolmë Labs, an academic research and science communication organisation, throws some light on the condition. "Persons with IS feel like a fraud because they feel others are overestimating their abilities.," she says, adding that they fail to attribute their success to their own personal characteristics and instead attribute it to external factors like luck, chance, privilege etc. "Their beliefs could be despite the presence of objective markers of success like being well qualified, professionally successful, and skilled," she adds.
She mentions that research into the neurological underpinnings of IS is in its formative stages. She reveals, "Experts hypothesise that testosterone may be associated with feelings of confidence, dominance and risk-taking, which are characteristically low in persons experiencing IS, "she says. According to her, IS is a manifestation of a number of biological, social and psychological factors. "Researchers have created psychometric instruments (questionnaires/Likert scales) which can help identify and measure it, but these are still in their nascent stages and haven't been systematically evaluated yet – especially in an Indian cultural context," she adds.
Saswati Barat, an industrial psychologist, organisational development consultant and work coach, says that the signs and symptoms of IS manifest differently in different people. "The idea or belief that one is not "good" enough despite contrary evidence and assurance is one way to look at it. It becomes a syndrome as these signs and symptoms grow beyond self-doubt and can quickly become self-sabotaging", she says. Individuals begin questioning their own reality, their past achievements and experiences and may feel crippled or stuck when making any future decisions, which may, in turn, lead to burnout, she says, adding that burnout can also cause imposter syndrome.
The positive side of feeling like an imposter
Barat believes that since there are components of self-under-estimation, it is actually very well possible that the individual channels their faith and confidence on others. "This can definitely result in enhanced interpersonal skills that lead to a better sense of experience from a "team" and "collaboration" perspective," she says.
Diwakar adds that IS does not necessarily negatively impact workplace effectiveness since it is often experienced by high-achieving individuals who routinely opt for more challenging tasks over easier ones. She says that the attributional style of those with IS allows them to have a realistic and overarching picture of the determinants of success and failure, which keeps them persistent in their efforts, humble, and other-oriented. "They readily seek feedback and are far less likely to "wing it" or fake their accolades since they would seem less concerned with performativity and impression management," she expounds. She also adds that the key to leveraging the gifts of imposter syndrome is a manager's ability to recognise it for what it is (not mistake it for low self-esteem or incompetence), avoid judgments about personal attributes that cause IS, and learn to work with these beliefs and provide structural and leadership support to balance them out.
Barat shares her view while saying that since the syndrome can play out differently for different individuals, ranging from perfectionists doubting their work, experts thinking they don't know that they are speaking and to individuals overcompensating by overworking themselves; it sometimes can affect how their environment perceives them and how they can support them. "If a person with imposter syndrome is around a supportive environment, then some of these signs can be utilised to support the person as well as the organisation. If a person is around a toxic environment, then these signs can start exaggerating themselves by pushing the individual deeper into depression and/or anxiety," she states.
However, one must not forget the fact that IS is a form of intellectual self doubt, sometimes associated with anxiety and depression. And hence, there are downsides to those with IS as well. Diwakar points out a few traits that tend to become the downside, "Someone with IS may hesitate to take on new tasks. They may set unrealistic performance benchmarks for themselves, which they would then feel the need to 'qualify' before thinking they are good enough. If they fail, it reaffirms their fears, sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy." She adds that IS is also associated with lowered risk-taking, which can lead to making conservative decisions or not taking up diverse opportunities that come their way. "If not addressed, it could lead to professional stagnation, despite being objectively competent," she warns.
In terms of organisational hindrances, Diwakar mentions that impression management (or the ability to make good impressions on others) is an important asset in many professions, and people with IS may not have the most positive self-evaluations. "In professions where employee’s self-evaluations form an integral part of a company's performance appraisal process, experiencing IS can hold people back from realistically and positively appraising themselves," she states. She also adds that all these drawbacks are easily overcome and can be addressed through supportive work environments, great leadership, and individual effort to access mental health support for assistance with persistent intrusive negative self-talk.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist