Imposter syndrome isn’t all bad – there’s a surprising benefit, research suggests

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  • Imposter syndrome affects hundreds of thousands of people globally.
  • This psychological occurrence is mostly regarded in a negative light, but one researcher has found a silver lining.
  • She also found that as time passes and people become more established in their roles, these feelings can change.

Imposter syndrome – the belief that you are not as smart or competent as others perceive you to be – is shockingly common around the world, and while it’s not an actual mental health condition, it’s not addressed frequently enough.

But, for those of you who wrestle with feelings of inadequacy despite your achievements, researchers have found an up-side: people harbouring workplace imposter thoughts are more likely to excel at teamwork and have strong social skills.

“People who have workplace imposter thoughts become more other-oriented as a result of having these thoughts,” co-author of the study, Basima Tewfik, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said in a news release

"As they become more other-oriented, they get evaluated as being higher in interpersonal effectiveness,” she added.

Tewfik’s findings, published in the Academy of Management Journal, are based on an analysis of just over 3 600 employees across four different studies and experiments.

Importantly, this does not come at the expense of work performance, she found.

The bright side

Overall, the current study suggests we should rethink some of our assumptions about imposter syndrome thoughts. Tewfik explained: “The idea that having these thoughts at work is always going to be bad for you may not be entirely true.”

However, Tewfik also drew attention to how such thoughts among workers can be damaging to their mental health and lower their self-esteem, and shouldn’t be ignored or even encouraged.

"I found a positive net outcome, but there might be scenarios where you don't find that," she said. "If you're working somewhere where you don't have interpersonal interaction, it might be pretty bad if you have imposter thoughts."

Tewfik plans to conduct further studies concentrating on how imposter syndrome might impact other areas of work, including creativity.

On the bright side, the research also suggests that this psychological occurrence isn't necessarily a permanent feature of a person's mentality: as employees become more established in their professional positions, it is likely that they will become less doubtful about their abilities and feel less like a fraud.

You’re not alone

Hundreds of thousands of people all over the world feel they are not competent, despite their success and achievements. In fact, many celebrities have admitted to struggling with imposter syndrome, including top-ranked tennis player, Serena Williams, Academy Award winner Tom Hanks, and renowned poet, Maya Angelou.

Angelou once stated: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

According to Harvard Business Review (HBR), around one-third of young adults suffer from imposter syndrome, while 70% of the rest is likely to experience it at some stage. 

However, there are some research-backed strategies that may help you overcome these destructive feelings, notes HBR. They include keeping a positive mindset; celebrating your victories; and using social media mindfully, so that you consume content that is inspirational rather than content that makes you doubt yourself and your achievements.

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READ | Hiding your feelings at work can lead to poor productivity

READ | Are employers proactively tackling mental health in the workplace

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