Addressing Imposter Syndrome: What Employers Can Do

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek May 24, 2023

​Have you ever feared that you'll be "found out" as a fraud, not equipped to handle a job or new responsibility? That feeling is called imposter syndrome—a term coined in 1978.

However, "syndrome" is a misnomer, said Maureen Calabrese, chief people officer at Modern Health, a fully remote mental well-being platform. 

Calling this feeling a syndrome "pathologizes feeling uncertain," she said. "At any point in someone's career, they're going to feel they're out of their depth, and I think that's a normal part of how you grow in a career."

Calabrese pointed to a survey KPMG conducted in 2020 of 750 executive-level women: 75 percent said they'd experienced imposter syndrome at some point.

When that many women report feeling this way, "it's less a syndrome and actually almost a natural workplace phenomenon," Calabrese said. "High performers hold themselves to an exceptionally high standard, and that high standard gets misconstrued [as] 'I have to know everything, and I have to know it at the exact moment.' "

But executive women are not the only ones who experience this uncertainty.

In a recent survey by staffing and recruiting firm LaSalle Network of 2,756 graduating college seniors in the U.S., 32 percent doubted their skills, talents and accomplishments as they prepared to enter the workforce this year. Another survey by business communication provider Moneypenny conducted in 2022 of 2,000 U.S. workers found that 32 percent have felt like an imposter in the workplace. The highest percentages were among younger workers:

  • 46 percent of workers ages 18 to 24.
  • 40 percent of those ages 25 to 34.
  • 31 percent of those ages 35 to 44.
  • 18 percent of those ages 45 to 54.
  • 19 percent of those ages 55 to 64.
  • 8 percent of those ages 65 and older.

Other studies have found that members of ethnic and racial minority groups also frequently report feeling like frauds or undeserving of their role.

"Societal stereotypes about competence based on gender, race, age, language, class and/or disability make some groups especially susceptible to imposter syndrome," the Imposter Syndrome Institute says on its website. 

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What Employers Can Do

Discussions about imposter syndrome often focus on the individual, but few focus on examining how the work culture may be perpetuating these feelings, according to Miguel Joey Aviles, chief belonging officer at Puerto Rico-based consultancy MJA & Co. LLC.

Before founding his company, Aviles was the first civilian diversity and inclusion chief in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard and held leadership positions at the departments of Defense, Interior and Homeland Security.

Aviles and Michelle E. Rosa, MJA International's chief empowerment officer, will co-present the concurrent session "Belongingness: The Antidote to Workplace Imposter Syndrome" on June 13 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2023.

They and others shared strategies employers can use to help boost employees' confidence.

Foster belongingness.

Having a safe place where employees can express their self-doubt helps create belongingness, Aviles said.

"A leader needs to create a combination of safe spaces" ranging from one-on-one meetings to employee or business resource groups to town halls, he said.

Create a culture where it's OK to fail.

When you feel like an imposter, Rosa said, there's the fear you will be fired if you fail, and so you become very risk-averse.

"We need to help individuals feel it's OK to fail" while establishing a healthy response to failure, she said.

It's also important that leaders talk about their own failures, Aviles said, because doing so offers assurance that employees can learn and grow from the mistakes they make.

Provide mentors and allies.

KPMG found its survey respondents were better able to manage imposter syndrome as they progressed in their careers by meeting with mentors and seeking advice from people they trusted.

Rosa said she has long experienced imposter syndrome as a Latina working in cybersecurity. Talking to a mentor or former supervisor about her work and capabilities has helped her deal with feeling that she was a fraud, she said.

Calabrese said it also helps to have allies who can be supportive of your capabilities even when you're not around.

Promote a collaborative culture.

This type of culture "enables people to feel comfortable voicing their ideas and concerns and builds a team that shares the same vision and succeeds together," KPMG said in its report.

It recommended leaders encourage training on leading with empathy "and focus on encouraging teamwork, creativity and collaboration."

Prioritize inclusion and diversity.

Identify and remove barriers affecting people of color, the National Institutes of Health suggested in a blog post. This can be done by providing mentoring opportunities; highlighting and emphasizing employee achievements; and increasing representation in the workplace.

Provide training.

"When as an organization you create space for people to learn, people are more willing to take risks, to try things," Calabrese said. "That organization is saying, 'We're looking for you to develop new skill sets and develop and grow.' "

In its report on the Class of 2023, LaSalle Network advises offering young employees training and laying out a detailed career path that incorporates important milestones, which "can help them achieve small wins quickly and allow them to feel the gratification of developing their career within the company." 

Other SHRM Resources:

Check-Ins, Continual Listening Can Calm Employee Anxiety, SHRM Online, September 2022.
Successful but Feel Like a Fraud? How to Deal with Imposter Phenomenon, SHRM Online, February 2019.



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