Dealing with imposter syndrome in the workplace

Most of us will feel it at some point in our lives. Peter Ryding deals with dealing with imposter syndrome.

Studies show that 85% of working adults feel inadequate or incompetent at work and 70% of people experience ‘imposter syndrome’ at some point in their career.

As a coach to CEOs and HRDs, I know that many frequently feel they are living on the edge of being exposed. One trend that is particularly detrimental is that more and more HR Directors, who are enormously valuable to a company, and should be sitting at the board table with CEOs, struggle to recognise their own worth.

Imposter syndrome not only lowers a person’s inner self-confidence and self-esteem, it can significantly impact employees’ lives. It can block staff from going for the job or promotion they want, impact performance at work and cause health problems through stress, worry and anxiety.

So, why doesn’t external evidence of success always translate to inner confidence?

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the name given to a pattern of behaviour where people doubt their success and accomplishments despite strong evidence to the contrary. They have an internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud.

Imposter feelings are not necessarily constant. People may feel confident giving a presentation to peers but inwardly tremble at the thought of giving the same presentation to management thinking ‘Surely they will see right through me? ‘

L&D and HR specialists may recognise one or more of these workplace indicators that suggest that the people they work with, or even themselves are prone to imposter syndrome.

  • Being a workaholic – working longer hours than everyone else, not taking time off, struggling to relax.
  • Being a perfectionist – never satisfied with anything less than perfection, struggling to delegate or micromanaging.
  • Being strong – never asking for help, being independent, not fully working with the team
  • Being the expert – needing to know everything yet never knowing enough, constantly seeking more knowledge and facts

Whilst both men and women can suffer from these feelings of inadequacy, studies show that women wait until they meet 90% of the criteria of a new job before applying whilst men are quite happy to apply with 60%.

Health can also be adversely affected. Research reveals that imposter syndrome is related to anxiety, depression and low self-worth.

Recognition that imposter syndrome is pretty much universal is especially relevant for HR and L&D professionals. Imposter syndrome has a negative impact on wellbeing through stress, anxiety and feelings of isolation and inhibits risk taking and innovation through fear of failure – all of which directly affect the bottom line.

So what can you do?

In order to help employees suffering from imposter syndrome, L&D and HR specialists need to start an open discussion and put in place the right training to address this lack of confidence.

  • Education will be key –  studies suggest that simply finding out about impostor syndrome and knowing that others feel it too, helps significantly                                                   
  • Training and coaching – changing beliefs, scripts, reframing, positive affirmations and understanding internal motivators are immensely powerful techniques to overcome imposter syndrome.
  • Ensuring that management have the right training and tools so that they too can help employees who are suffering from imposter syndrome – They need to be able to build relationships and trust, develop emotional intelligence and have the empathy and understanding to know how to give feedback that works. These are critical management skills that enable employees be more open and authentic and in turn drive productivity, loyalty and retention.
  • Mental health – be aware how imposter syndrome contributes to well-being and encourage a supportive and open culture
  • Inclusivity – imposter syndrome drives a need for external validation and lack of inclusion can make those feelings worse. A strong inclusion agenda provides validation for under-represented groups.
  • Pay and reward – Employees should have clear remuneration and promotion objectives. The problem with job offers and promotions that reward performance above expectations is it can create a fear of not being able to achieve.
  • Success attribution – accurate attribution of success is helpful. If, for example, an organisation openly recognises and rewards hard work over creativity and teamwork, this will drive workaholics to work even harder and demonstrate even less creativity and teamwork.


About the author

Peter Ryding is founder of and award winning CEO Mentor. During this particularly turbulent time and as a result of the corona virus VIC has been made freely available to new members.


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