Recognise Signs of Impostor Syndrome in Employees

Recognise Signs of Impostor Syndrome in Employees

You may have heard of Impostor syndrome, but what exactly is it? It is an individual’s feeling of profound inadequacy despite being fully competent for a task or role. It is common in the workplace and can make employees feel like they’re on borrowed time.  Onebright pulls back the curtain on imposter syndrome, diving into what it feels like, looks like, and the subtle ways it infiltrates the workplace. 

CEOs, scholars, and people from all walks of life are talking about Imposter Syndrome. First identified by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the late 1970s, it is a cognitive distortion characterised by an individual’s genuine disbelief in their capabilities and will even go as far as dismissing evidence, accolades, awards, or affirmations that point to the contrary. The internal narrative remains the same: “I don’t belong here” or “I’ve fooled them all.”

How can managers tell if an employee is stuck in a cycle of self-doubt and not reaching their full potential because of mental blocks?  First and foremost, education and training are key.

Onebright mental health experts have worked with many large and small-sized companies to better understand the impact that employee mental wellbeing, including Imposter Syndrome, has on collective business prosperity. 

Below are some of the most common questions people managers have asked to better understand the experience of their employees who showed or communicated their challenges with Imposter Syndrome. 

What are some causes of imposter syndrome?

There is no single cause of Imposter Syndrome, but it is often believed that family dynamics and the roles people learn early in life play a part in it. 

A variety of factors can cause thoughts of self-doubt to present themselves, such as:

Family pressure – A person may have grown up in a family where achievement was overly important and criticism was rife.

A feeling of not belongingIf someone perceives themselves as ‘different’ or has previously encountered adverse experiences, they might be susceptible to experiencing a sense of not fitting in or, even more distressing, fearing exclusion or ostracism.

Social expectations- Social expectations can significantly shape an individual’s self-perception and their view of their accomplishments, especially when they closely link achievement and self-worth, influenced by the social circles they engage with.

Personal expectations- An individual may have very high expectations of themselves, which can lead to a tendency toward perfectionism. Sometimes, they internalise stress, leading to unhealthy thinking patterns. 

How common is imposter syndrome?

According to 62 studies of 14,161 participants, Imposter Syndrome is common amongst men and women across an extensive age range. 

This finding shatters the stereotype that Imposter Syndrome is more often associated with women. Men, too, grapple with these feelings at comparable rates. 

It is also important to note that Imposter syndrome may not have been previously present in an individual’s career but instead has come from a promotion or taking on more responsibilities. Often, as employees climb the career ladder, they may become more prone to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, feeling unfit for the job. 

Imposter syndrome, anxiety and depression

Imposter syndrome can, but not always, lead to conditions such as anxiety and depression. Individuals may feel like a fraud and don’t deserve the opportunities they receive, often leading to regular overworking and striving to ‘prove’ their worth. 

This type of behaviour can quickly spiral into a vicious circle of anxiety, depression and intrusive thoughts if left unaddressed.  

To compensate for perceived inadequacies, individuals with Imposter Syndrome might push themselves harder to achieve ‘perfection’, leading to chronic stress, a well-documented precursor to depression.

Challenges of self-doubt in the workplace

In what ways does an ‘imposter’ mindset hold back or sabotage an individual’s professional career? Spotting the signs of certain behaviours or language can help managers know when to reach out or seek support with an employee:   

Imposter syndrome sounds like:
  • “Oh, it was nothing.” 
  • “I was lucky.”
  • “It is no big deal.”
  • “Anyone could do it.”


Imposter syndrome looks like:
  • Not going for specific promotions despite being fully qualified

Employees suffering will not believe they are capable of more senior roles and will shy away from such opportunities. 

  • Constantly asking for feedback

Employees may ask regularly for feedback or comments on completed work, seeking validation.

  • Difficulty accepting compliments or praise

 Imposter syndrome prevents individuals from acknowledging and accepting positive comments from others. 

  • Over-preparing or overcompensating

Self-doubt causes individuals to spend excessive time working and preparing for tasks.

  • Reluctance to share ideas or speak up

They feel that their input is not necessary or valid, so they often avoid sharing ideas. 


How can managers and employers support those with imposter syndrome?

Companies that prioritise an open and honest work culture that encourages a healthy work-life balance will benefit from employees who feel safe to share their experiences with colleagues and management.

Team leaders often find it challenging to begin the conversation.

As more time and effort are dedicated to reducing the stigma of mental health challenges in the workplace, the benefits become progressively more evident.

One effective way to empower employees is through mental health training and mental wellbeing awareness programs. Trusted mental health professionals deliver Onebright’s training, giving business leaders the peace of mind that they are offering their people clinically-led resources that have undergone testing with positive outcomes.

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