Impostor Syndrome Has Its Advantages

By Eben Harrell
June 24, 2022

Basima A. Tewfik, an assistant professor at MIT Sloan, ran two field studies and two experiments examining employees who have “impostor syndrome”—commonly thought of as the feeling of being inadequate and a fraud despite a reputation for success at work. She discovered that these individuals adopted a more other-focused orientation in their social interactions. As a result they were rated as more interpersonally effective. The conclusion: Impostor syndrome has its advantages.

 

Professor Tewfik, defend your research.

Tewfik: People familiar with impostor syndrome tend to think that it’s uniformly harmful. To be sure, the belief that you’re not as competent as others think you are could certainly make you anxious and lower your self-esteem. But there’s an upside too. My research shows that experiencing this phenomenon can make you more adept at relationships, which is a key ingredient in career success. In one study doctors in training who had more-frequent impostor thoughts were significantly better at handling sensitive interactions with patients, which led those patients to give them higher interpersonal-skill ratings. In another study job candidates primed to have more impostor thoughts asked more questions during informal preinterview chats and as a result were viewed by hiring managers as having better people skills. Essentially, impostor thoughts make you more “other oriented”—more attuned to other people’s perceptions and feelings—which makes you more likable. In addition, impostor thoughts didn’t seem to hurt performance—at least not in my samples. Doctors who had more of them were just as likely as other doctors to give correct diagnoses, and job candidates who had more of them were just as likely to be invited for an interview after their chats with hiring managers.

HBR: So it’s OK—maybe even good—to have impostor syndrome?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say “good,” but one of my goals with this research was to remove some of the stigma and give a more balanced view. I hope that this work can help people dampen the initial stress and anxiety that come with impostor thoughts by showing that there is this interpersonal silver lining. It’s OK to have impostor thoughts sometimes. It’s not a “syndrome” or a pathology.

But surely these thoughts do hurt your performance even if they enhance how other people view you interpersonally—especially in high-stakes jobs? I’m thinking of athletes, military officers, litigators, and CEOs.

Interestingly, to date there’s no empirical quantitative evidence that impostor thoughts degrade performance. Yet this notion persists. Psychologists often point to something called the Yerkes-Dodson stress performance curve, which shows that a few nerves—up to a point—improve performance. It may be that having the right amount of impostor thoughts can provide just enough motivation to bring out your best work. It’s an open question.

How do you determine whether someone has impostor syndrome—and to what extent? In the study with doctors, for example, how did you know which doctors had it?

This question actually gets to the start of it all for me. Early on, in graduate school, I came to the realization that what researchers have been studying and calling impostor syndrome or impostor phenomenon over the past few decades was indistinguishable from fear. And if fear is what we’ve been studying, it’s no wonder we think that experiencing it is all bad news.

So we needed to measure it in a way that actually captures its defining characteristic: the belief that others overestimate your competence. I used seven lab and field samples involving more than 1,000 people to develop and validate a new five-item psychological survey measure. Specifically, I ask people to indicate how frequently they entertain thoughts such as People important to me think I am more capable than I think I am or Others think I have more knowledge than I think I do when they’re at work.

In the experiment with job applicants, how did you make people feel like impostors, and how quickly did that affect their behavior?

I asked the employees randomly assigned to that group to reflect on a time in which they had impostor thoughts at work, while the control group considered a time when others saw them as they saw themselves or, in a second experiment, what they had for lunch. Immediately after those reflection periods, people in the impostor condition behaved differently from those in the control group: They started asking more questions.

Should we all be priming ourselves to have impostor thoughts? In other words, did Stuart Smalley from the 1990s Saturday Night Live sketch get it wrong? Instead of mantras like “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me,” should our self-talk be more like “I don’t think I’m good enough, I don’t think I’m smart enough, but I’m not going to worry because that insecurity will make people like me”?

Ha! I definitely do not think we should be intentionally inducing impostor thoughts. There are probably better interventions to help you form stronger professional relationships. Rather, I hope the takeaway from this research is that when you do find yourself having these thoughts—as you may from time to time—you shouldn’t compound the stress that comes with them by also thinking that they’re necessarily going to cause you to do poorly at work.

How many of us have impostor syndrome?

A frequently cited statistic suggests that nearly 70% of people have entertained impostor thoughts at least at one point in their careers. These thoughts tend to come to a peak when you’re facing a new challenge, starting a new job, or encountering new tasks after a promotion.

Do women and people of color have impostor thoughts more frequently?

In all my studies—and this has been backed up by other researchers—I don’t find significant differences. That is, white men seem to experience just as many impostor thoughts as women and people of color do. When people point to the impostor phenomenon in underrepresented groups, I think they’re conflating it with something more insidious: a lack of belonging. A true impostor thought is My colleagues think I’m smarter than I am. It’s not I think other people question whether I belong here or think I’m not smart enough.

In fact, if managers hear an employee from a minority group expressing what sounds like impostor thoughts, they might want to check to see if there is an inclusion problem. Maybe the minority employee is operating in a hostile, biased work environment.

Isn’t there a risk that knowing the upside of impostor syndrome will stop you from feeling like an impostor?

It’s a good question. If you focus on the fact that your impostor thoughts will push you to compensate interpersonally, which gets people to see you as more socially skilled, does that eventually diminish your thoughts and the benefits they provide? We’ll need more research, but I suspect that this knowledge wouldn’t eliminate your impostor thoughts entirely. Even extremely successful people like Albert Einstein, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and the writer Maya Angelou publicly admitted to having impostor thoughts from time to time. I suspect that there will always be powerful environmental triggers that bring them on.




Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

 

 

 

 

 

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