Imposter Phenomenon, sometimes called Imposter Syndrome, is an often misunderstood and underestimated challenge UK workers experience. Learn how employers and managers can help staff contend with Imposter feelings following the outbreak of Covid-19.

Back in February 2019, Totaljobs worked with Dr Terri Simpkin and Kate Atkin MSc, academic researchers and experts in Imposter Phenomenon (IP). With 7 in 10 UK workers experiencing Imposter feelings, we returned for a new round of research to understand how widespread remote working has impacted this.

Imposter Phenomenon is often called Imposter Syndrome, although technically it isn’t a mental health issue. It’s a fear that you’re not good enough at your job; a self-imposed belief that you’re a ‘fraud’ at work, even though you have evidence of past success, along with validation from managers.

In August 2020, we found that of 2,000 workers, just 3 in 10 workers are experiencing feelings of Imposter Phenomenon.

While it’s a positive sign that life working from home has meant many have found it easier to fight back against their inner critic, of those experiencing IP, 82% are worried that everyone has been more productive during lockdown than themselves, with 89% believing they haven’t been productive or achieved enough professionally in the last few months.

Imposter Phenomenon is related to context and so if the context changes, so can experiences of Imposter-ism. It’s socially constructed so change the social circumstances and the experience may change too.

DR TERRI SIMPKIN, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM AND VISITING FELLOW AT ANGLIA RUSKIN UNIVERSITY

Signs of Imposter Phenomenon

Since March 2020, people across the UK have navigated new challenges in the way they live and work. On top of this, those with Imposter feelings have put pressure on themselves to get more done following the Covid-19 outbreak:

  • 40% are working harder because of anxiety about the quality of their work
  • 39% are working longer hours
  • 38% spent more time on the detail of a task than necessary
  • 35% avoid taking sick days or annual leave
  • 35% over-prepared for a work situation
  • 30% have put things off
  • 21% have missed deadlines

These anxieties are less common for people who aren’t experiencing Imposter feelings:

  • 25% spent more time on the detail of a task than necessary
  • 25% are working longer hours
  • 23% are working harder because of anxiety about the quality of their work
  • 23% avoid taking sick days or annual leave
  • 22% over-prepared for a work situation
  • 17% have put things off
  • 10% have missed deadlines

Impact of Imposterism on employee wellbeing

In the long term, the cycle of Imposter Phenomenon can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing. Not feeling worthy of success, or not feeling good enough generally means people with Imposter feelings push themselves to meet their own (often unachievable) expectations. Ultimately, they set themselves up for failure, which only impacts their lack of self-worth further.

When people experiencing IP make a mistake at work, the way they perceive this can contribute to a lack of confidence. The mistake can seem bigger than it really was, leading to a greater fear of failure when approaching other tasks in the future. This can cause heightened stress, lower job satisfaction and eventually, burnout. Imposter feelings can also have implications for mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Totaljobs research from February 2019 highlighted that after making a mistake at work:

  • 38% of ‘imposters’ want to do better next time
  • 17% of ‘imposters’ feel anxious they’re not capable enough for the role
  • 12% of ‘imposters’ struggle to get over it/stew over the mistake
  • 7% of ‘imposters’ are inclined to look for a new job

Impact on parents

While working from home has lessened feelings of Imposterism for many workers, for others this sadly isn’t the case. Those with children aged 4-6 are 15% more likely to experience Imposter Phenomenon than those without. For those with a child between 7-10, this is 14% more likely, and for people with children aged 11-13, they’re 11% more likely to be faced with IP.

For parents, trying to meet work deadlines while being a full-time caregiver can result in what feels like a never-ending list of jobs to be done. As a result, parents can feel put out when they feel like things don’t get completed.

Impact on younger workers

Younger workers are also more likely to feel like a fraud at work. 48% of Gen Z feel this way, compared to a third of Gen X and just 21% of Baby Boomers. This could well be linked to the unprecedented events of recent months, with lockdown and industries on pause denting the UK’s economic growth – something older generations have lived through before.

Impact on furloughed or redundant staff

While those who are able to work from home have benefited from reduced Imposter feelings, 7 in 10 (71%) of people who have been furloughed or made redundant in recent months are facing heightened IP. They might see their circumstances as a sign of personal failure, rather a result of the tough state of the market.

If your business is in a position where you are having to make difficult decisions to make staff redundant, be conscious of the impact this might have on the way a person sees their professional ability in the future. Predictions suggest the UK will see an increase in redundancies as the furlough scheme comes to an end, although the Chancellor’s latest jobs support announcement aims to lower this number. As businesses, knowing the current market, we owe it to our staff to do what we can to support them through the redundancy process and set them up for employment elsewhere.

Ensure that your employee knows that a redundancy isn’t a comment on their ability, and do your bit to make them feel supported and empowered in finding a new role. You can even highlight their key skills and how they’ve already developed professionally in the time spent with your business. This will set them up to talk more confidently about themselves, especially if applying for jobs in a different sector.

Spotting Imposterism when interviewing candidates

The reality is, many of the candidates now in the market are there as a result of redundancy, rather than choice, meaning IP could be really rampant in your candidate pool.

At interview stage in particular, people may diminish their own capabilities and success, due to those niggling Imposter feelings. A candidate might be noticeably uncomfortable talking about their achievements, or they might justify the merits of a project by focusing on what others did, or how “luck” played a part.

There are ways to manage this when interviewing a candidate who might be fighting Imposterism, to uncover the real extent of their skills and successes:

  • If the candidate is open to it, have a conversation about how their redundancy impacted them. That way, you’ll know how this might influence the way they position their expertise and experience during the interview
  • Use standardised criteria to keep your assessment objective, to avoid being clouded by the way a candidate may downplay themselves
  • Ask the candidate what kind of feedback they received off the back of a project, to get a better idea of their performance from other perspectives
  • Ask about their KPIs or targets to aid objectivity

Actions for managers to support staff experiencing Imposterism

Understanding the effects of IP on working life is the first step to helping your teams navigate it. Beyond that, open conversation and objectivity is key.

Spot the signs

Look out for the way that your team tackle stress or a challenging project, and how their behaviours change in response. ​If an individual is suddenly procrastinating, or if you notice they keep working after hours, have a gentle conversation with them about why this is, and set clear expectations of what is ‘good enough’ – they might be putting unnecessary pressure on themselves otherwise.

Highlight an employee’s strengths

People who experience IP can often go into their shell off the back of praise, or feel uncomfortable if the spotlight is on them, as they inherently believe their success isn’t down to their skills. Objectively highlight key personal strengths and how these specifically came through in a project, so those experiencing IP can see how they applied them.

Allow time for reflection

Take the time to sit with an employee and understand why they are so focused on perfection. Uncovering whether this is driven by a fear of making mistakes, or pressure from above, means solutions can be found. Set realistic deadlines and be clear about your own expectations of a project.

Tailor your feedback

Ask your employee how they ideally want to receive feedback. Evidence has shown that public shows of praise may have a negative impact on those experiencing Imposter Phenomenon, as adds to inner pressure and anxiety surrounding how others perceive them.​

Likewise, if there’s an area for development, think through how you can position this as a manager, before raising this with your staff. Development areas should be framed as an opportunity to build on what the employee has already learned and should offer a path to progress their career.

Mentorship

Pair up your team member with a colleague outside of their department, who doesn’t know them well. This can help people with Imposter feelings to shift their own perceptions of their achievements by hearing an honest appraisal from someone who is further away from your team, who has no interest in just “being nice” out of familiarity.

 

Original article ‘Tackling imposter phenomenon in your workplace‘ Written by Ellie Green Published by Total Jobs

 

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