As we progress through our careers, it’s normal to feel as though we are not qualified to perform in an assigned role. We may believe we got the job or the assignment due to luck, or a mistake, not based on merit.
These thoughts encompass imposter syndrome, a prevalent issue that, contingent on the situation and your own mindset, can quickly spiral out of control. Fortunately, an insight from the psychological work on mindset can help people reshape their self-conceptions and perform at their best.
Understanding imposter syndrome
The first step in addressing the nefarious effects of imposter syndrome is to understand what it is. Imposter syndrome is best understood as a tendency instead of a type of person. This means that the world is not comprised of imposters and non-imposters. Instead, in any given situation, we can all act in a way that is harmful to ourselves, and some people respond this way more often than others.
Imposter syndrome isn’t just a drain on morale; it’s been shown to induce feelings of depression, overall worse mental health, and can become a roadblock to career advancement, diminished job satisfaction, and the feeling that you have to stay in your current role because you have no other options.
But we shouldn’t let our mindset get us down. We should take charge of it.
Growth mindset as a cure
On a personal basis, the feeling of being an imposter appears to be reminiscent of Mindset theory, a set of ideas based on the fundamental belief regarding whether or not people think their abilities are subject to change. The more you believe your abilities are malleable, the more likely you are to focus on developing them, knowing you have the potential to do so.
Alternatively, if you believe your abilities are fixed, you don’t strive to better yourself and instead fall victim to the idea that any shortcoming is indicative of your inevitable inability to perform.
This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in that you no longer benefit from potential learning opportunities. This is because of the perceived repercussions of acknowledging how you could improve your performance. In other words, learning requires recognition of your imperfections. And just like imposter syndrome, there are no fixed or growth mindset people, just tendencies.
Workplace culture is critical to growth mindset, and unsurprisingly, it has been suggested that these imposter syndrome tendencies can be motivated by one’s work culture.
A culture that reinforces the toxic perspective that one’s abilities are fixed, and therefore an employee cannot improve their skills, leads to the mentality that they either have them or they don’t. This results in employees hiding their failures, and focusing on trying to be perceived as infallible, instead of being open about their abilities, allowing for the opportunity to learn and grow.
How leadership can help
Managers can try to understand the mindset of those team members that are susceptible to imposter syndrome. They can look out for individuals who underestimate their abilities and attribute their successes to external factors. Managers can make it clear to their teams that they value effort and willingness to learn, not perfection.
Imposter syndrome sufferers often have the perspective that being viewed as though you are putting in effort will be perceived as lack of talent. If you are great at something, it should be easy. This is a fallacy that some workplace cultures perpetuate. In reality, talent and effort go hand in hand, it takes effort to get better at something, and often the thing you are getting better at is the ability to exert effort towards the goal.
At the NeuroLeadership Institute we are invested in promoting work cultures that reduce the presence of fixed mindset and replace it with a Growth Mindset Culture. With organizational awareness of the importance of growth mindset, a culture can develop which promotes a growth mindset amongst its employees. This gives people the freedom to acknowledge their mistakes and provides the opportunity to learn and grow.
In doing so, we can diminish the effects of imposter syndrome because in a growth mindset culture there are no imposters. Instead, there are simply groups of people working together to improve themselves, benefiting from each other along the way.