Is Imposter Syndrome responsible for the Great Resignation?

Could Imposter Syndrome be impacting attrition rates in organisations? Luke Smith investigates

You may love your job, but the reality is that it’s not always easy. Every day, you must assume the professional mantle, projecting confidence and competence for your colleagues, your clients, and your employers that you perhaps do not always feel.

And you’re by no means alone. Studies show that more than 70% of workers will, at some point in their careers experience what has come to be knowns as ‘Imposter Syndrome’. Further, these studies also indicate that the more successful you are in your career, the more likely you are to battle Imposter Syndrome, with high-achieving females at particular risk.

But the syndrome isn’t just debilitating for the workers themselves. It can also wreak havoc on the entire organisation, resulting in the underperformance and even the loss of some of the company’s most talented workers. 

In fact, executives, managers, and human resource professionals are increasingly concerned that Imposter Syndrome may lie at the heart of the Great Resignation. But what is Imposter Syndrome, exactly, what causes it, and what can leadership do to combat it?

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome was first recognised by psychologists in the 1970s. As the name suggests, the syndrome refers to feelings of incompetence and fraudulence that many workers, including highly-esteemed professionals, grapple with at some point in their careers.

Imposter Syndrome can have devastating impacts both on the employee, their coworkers and company. Because of the sense of inadequacy and inauthenticity that is the hallmark of Imposter Syndrome, employees can experience an array of physical and psychological symptoms, ranging from low self-esteem to anxiety and depression.

Workplaces are fraught with various forms of microaggressions, which can contribute to employees’ sense of inadequacy and not belonging.

This, in turn, often leads employees to take a disproportionate number of sick days, incur high healthcare costs, and, in general, underperform. For example, employees with Imposter Syndrome may procrastinate on important projects because they fear they cannot do the work adequately and that, with every work product, their shortcomings are one step closer to being discovered. 

Similarly, these employees may hesitate to share ideas or they may refuse new assignments for which they are imminently qualified simply because they (wrongly) feel they are not up to the task.

Not only this, but Imposter Syndrome can also contribute to a toxic work environment because employees who are suffering from it may assume a defensive posture, becoming aggressive, irritable, and unreasonably exacting, simply in the effort to attempt to mask their own feelings of inadequacy. 

Imposter Syndrome and the Great Resignation

There’s been a great deal of speculation lately as to what might be fuelling the Great Resignation. Theories range from lingering fears of the COVID-19 pandemic to insufficient wages to the lack of opportunity to continue working from home at least some of the time.

But business leaders and executives are increasingly recognising the role that Imposter Syndrome may be playing in the Great Resignation. For instance, current evidence suggests that workers are feeling substantially less engaged in the workplace, doubting that their contributions are valued, recognised, or truly meaningful. All of these emotions are hallmarks of Imposter Syndrome.

What is to be done?

As prevalent as Imposter Syndrome may be, this in no way suggests that either workers, or their leaders, are helpless. There are, in fact, a range of strategies that management can undertake both in recognising when employees are suffering and in helping them to overcome the challenge.

A particularly significant risk factor for Imposter Syndrome can be found in the workplace culture itself. For instance, research has shown that workplaces are fraught with various forms of microaggressions, which can contribute to employees’ sense of inadequacy and not belonging.

Indeed, the greatest danger of microaggressions, perhaps, is the difficulty in recognising them when they occur. Employees are rarely subjected to overt discrimination, insults, or attacks. Nevertheless, the workplace environment can create an atmosphere in which employees feel invalidated or unappreciated. These attributes can range from ostensibly ‘harmless’ comments or ‘jokes’ to a business environment that lacks diversity and inclusiveness.

Thus, helping to prevent Imposter Syndrome in the workplace is often predicated on concerted efforts to pursue sensitivity training for all employees. This should include, for instance, specialised training in learning to recognise, prevent, and respond to microaggressions in their myriad forms. 

Another important strategy to help ensure that employees do not fall prey to Imposter Syndrome is to cultivate a workplace culture that embraces diversity and that routinely celebrates every employee’s unique and specific contributions.

Along those lines, it is also essential that the workplace be one in which leadership reflects the diversity of the workforce itself. Installing more women, persons of colour, and LGBTQA employees at the highest levels of leadership will help to ensure that all employees feel valued, accepted, and necessary in the workplace. 

The takeaway

Imposter Syndrome is neither rare nor new. For more than four decades, psychologists have traced the phenomenon in the workplace, with the majority of workers battling the syndrome at some point in their career. And not only is Imposter Syndrome targeting some of our most talented and highest-achieving workers, but it’s also taking a profound toll on business. Indeed, business leaders are increasingly citing Imposter Syndrome as a key cause of the Great Resignation of 2021. However, there are steps that workers and business leaders alike can take to help prevent Imposter Syndrome, including cultivating workplaces that embrace diversity and inclusion while resisting microaggressions.

Luke Smith is a freelance writer


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