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Can impostors thrive at work?

11th Oct 2021
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This is a guest post from: Helena GONZÁLEZ-GÓMEZ (NEOMA Business School) and Sarah HUDSON (Rennes School of Business). 

Imagine that you believe that you are not really up to your job, and any success you experience is due to luck or your charm. Does your perceived inadequacy make you feel ashamed? Will it affect your work performance or have long-term consequences for your career? The impostor phenomenon—the feeling that one’s success is due to extraneous factors, rather than one’s competence and qualifications, despite objective evidence to the contrary—is well known in the psychological literature.

Studies investigating IP in the workplace have shown that it can influence outcomes such as employee commitment, stress, coping, or job satisfaction directly. However, because IP is linked to a fear of being exposed as a fraud, it may affect an individual’s performance and even have effects on career success. 

Using four studies with different methodologies and a total of 648 employees in US and Europe, we investigate the effects of IP on performance and career outcomes. Our findings reveal that in both simulated and recalled work situations, impostors are likely to feel shame, particularly when they attribute failure to themselves, but not in cases where they can attribute failure to external causes.

We further found that the impostor phenomenon has an indirect negative effect on creativity and a positive impact on organizational citizenship behaviors through shame. That is, the experience of shame elicited by feelings of being an imposter has consequences on creativity and citizenship behaviors. The detrimental effect on creativity is worsened in organizational structures with less flexibility in work processes, rules, and regulations.

We also demonstrate that the impostor syndrome is positively related to external employability (i.e. the perception that an employee has of the likelihood of finding a job elsewhere) but has no relationship with internal employability (i.e. the perception that an employee has of the likelihood of finding a job in the same organization s/he is currently working). Finally, we show that the impostor syndrome also links to lower career success in terms of number of positive appraisals and promotions over one’s career, with no significant relationship with salary. 

Practical Implications

Our results are of interest to organizations and managers wishing to harness the talent of individuals with the impostor syndrome. Because impostors are prone to self-directed assessments of failure, managerial or supervisory feedback that avoids direct attributions of personal failure and rather focuses on how to improve performance in a more neutral manner is likely to increase creativity in individuals with IP. Managers can also foster opportunities for inter-employee helping behaviors, for example by enabling organic (i.e. flexible) rather than mechanistic unit or team structures (i.e. rigid and more vertical) as our results indicate that this might enable impostors to cope with their fears of not living up to the expectations of others.

Finally, managers could use appraisal and promotion tools that are more strongly weighted towards externally assessed qualifications and performance, including extra-role performance, rather than towards self-assessment. Because impostors tend to underestimate their abilities, these tools could be a useful basis for fostering a higher sense of employability and enabling more successful career advancement for individuals with IP.

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