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Imposter Phenomenon – RITS

It was an absolute pleasure to speak to you about the impact of the imposter phenomenon as part of your RIT Symposium and I hope you enjoyed our discussions.

If there are any issues or questions which have subsequently been prompted by my talk, please do feel free to contact me. You can reach me at kate@kateatkin.com or +44(0)7779 646976.

On this page you will find some extra information on the imposter phenomenon (as you now know, it isn’t really a syndrome) which is based on my own research and that of other experts. In addition, there are some other useful links plus suggestions of TED talks and further reading, plus a couple of questions raised since my keynote talk.

While there is no ‘quick fix’, to overcome the imposter chatter, remembering that self-doubt and IP are not one and the same can be helpful. Self-doubt is normal and useful if you are doing something for the first, second and maybe third time. IP is where you already have a track record of success, but you have not internalised it. Remembering the difference and starting to discuss it, helping others talk about it and remembering that we are all ‘works in progress’ is a good starting point.

The Dunning Kruger Effect

I was asked in the break if there is an opposite to the Imposter Phenomenon – the answer is yes and it is called the Dunning Kruger effect. This is a cognitive bias where people have a high perception of their ability but their actual ability is much lower. It can be something you find in people who were brought up with a parenting style of “you can do anything darling”, “whatever you do, you’ll be amazing”… One possible way to assist these people is to help them fail safely, so they realise that they can’t do everything. But that doesn’t work with everyone. More on the Dunning Kruger effect in this Psychology Today article.

Making Comparisons

There’s a lovely book by Charlie Mackesy called The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse. In there the boy asks the mole “what is the biggest waste of time?” and the mole replies “comparing yourself to others”.  Instead of comparing yourself to others, start to compare yourself to yourself and recognise where you have grown, what you have learnt, what skills you have developed.  Those experiencing  imposter chatter often continue to learn, but don’t pause to reflect on what they have learnt. Time to pause I’d suggest. The book is available from many bookshops and of course online too!

We are still at an early stage in understanding the impact of the Imposter Phenomenon and my interest is in understanding the most effective ways of managing those imposter feelings, in particular in the workplace and passing on this information to others. I am currently undertaking doctoral research on this topic. If you are interested in keeping up to date with my research findings and musings on the topic, do sign up to receive my occasional newsletter.

Here’s a link to the research on IP in the workplace by TotalJobs in 2019 which mentions what managers/employers can do to support their staff, conducted in collaboration with yours truly and my PhD supervisor Dr Terri Simpkin: TotalJobs Survey, and the more recent 2020 research to explore the impact of working from home and the first lockdown during the Covid pandemic can be found here.

In addition, here’s an interesting blog on the importance of allyship at work . Being an ally could help reduce another person’s feelings of imposterism.

The media have tended to create a gendered construct around IP and focussed little on the impact organisational culture may have. This Harvard Business Review article goes someway to addressing that bias:  Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome


Slides can be downloaded here:

Imposter Phenomenon Slides

Confidence Workshop Slides

Further notes on other research linked to IP:
Personality Types

I am often asked about “types of people” who experience the phenomenon.  As I mentioned during the presentation, it can affect anyone who feels as if they don’t belong, or when they look around they feel ‘other’.

So while there is no set “type”, there is some research which explores the links between the imposter phenomenon and personality types, specifically the Five Factor Model: extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness to experience. Two factors report significant finding in research; IP has been negatively related to Extraversion (Chae et al., 1995) and a greater level of consistency has been found in the relationship with Neuroticism, where IP has been found to be positively associated (Ross et al., 2001, Bernard et al., 2002, Vergauwe et al., 2015). IP has also been found to be negatively associated to Conscientiousness (Chrisman, 1995, Chae et al., 1995, Bernard et al., 2002, Vergauwe et al., 2015), with ‘imposters’ low in two facets in particular: competence (Vergauwe et al., 2015) and self-discipline (Bernard et al., 2002).

Career Development

A paper published by Austrian researchers Neureiter and Traut-Mattausch (2016 & 2017) indicates that experiencing IP can hinder career planning.  They suggest that this could be due to a fear of failure. As mentioned during my talk, failure can be wrongly interpreted as “I am a failure”, so to avoid the risk of failure individuals might avoid applying for a promotion.

Perceived Organisational Support

Researchers in America noted that if an individual perceives that their organisation is supportive of them, values their contributions and is concerned for their well-being, then IP feelings are lessened (McDowell et al 2015). Conversely, if the perception is negative, imposter feelings are heightened.

Loneliness and Compassion Fatigue

Another researcher in Israel has found links between imposter feelings and levels of loneliness at executive level in the workplace (Kuna 2019). Kuna describes “the intense experience of having fooled others into an overestimation of one’s ability—in this case, managerial competence—and the anxiety of being exposed as an executive fraud”. Kuna also notes that “the attribution of one’s success to factors other than intelligence or ability, did not surface in the participants’ narratives”. Loneliness is associated with high levels of anxiety and social alienation (Ernst & Cacioppo, 1999), which can partly explain the link with IP.  Clark’s (2021) research with mental health workers observed that IP was positively associated with compassion fatigue and burnout, regardless of age and years of work.

Extra Question on Confidence

We talked about how to portray confidence in-person, including the more subtle cues that people pick up on.  Do you have any tips for confident language in emails where you do not have the advantage of the extra cues and need to be careful that the person receiving the email does not mistake your tone?

I suggest using a subject line that is short and to the point. Sometimes prefacing it with ‘Action Required’, or ‘For Info’ can be helpful for the receiver. I also like to break up my emails into sections using headings if they are long-ish. That will indicate to the reader that you are on point and not waffling (waffling can be associated with a lack of confidence).

Regarding language:

Check for neutral language and avoid as much as possible: try, hopefully, maybe etc.

There was an app which would scan emails for apologies – too many can undermine your confidence in the reader’s eye.

Re-read your email before sending it, taking out any unnecessary words (for instance, I have just deleted the word ‘would’ from the first line of this answer – it had read “I would suggest”… but would is not needed.

If you think an email may be misinterpreted, consider picking up the phone, making a Teams call or speaking to them in person.

Other Useful Links

Strength Questionnaires

TED Talks & YouTube Links

Amy Cuddy TED Talk on Body Language
Christine Porath TED Talk on Incivility
Susan Cain TED Talk on The Power of the Introvert
Viola Davis behind the scenes Oscar interview
Inga Beale on R4 Desert Island Discs

Other reading, books and references for IP and Confidence

What to say when you talk to Yourself by Shad Helmstetter
The Impostor Phenomenon by Dr Pauline Rose Clance
The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar
Inferior by Angela Saini
The Gift of Imperfection by Brene Brown
The Confident Manager by Kate Atkin
Quiet by Susan Cain

On the video tab of this website you’ll find a panel discussion on the imposter syndrome with Circle Co. which provides an interesting insight into the imposter at work (filmed prior to Covid 19). I also add blogs and podcasts to the site, so do take a look around.  You might also like to listen to me discussing the Imposter Phenomenon with the hosts of the Gin and Topic podcast

Finally, if you would like to keep in touch, then please connect with me on LinkedIn, Twitter or sign up to receive my newsletter.

With best wishes.