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Impostor Syndrome Is Probably the Reason You’re Terrible At Your Job

According to new research, feeling like an impostor makes it more likely you’ll sabotage your professional career. We asked experts for advice on how to overcome your crippling impostor syndrome.

Sirin Kale

Sirin Kale

Photo by VegterFoto via Stocksy

Impostor syndrome is real, and it's probably sabotaging your career, according to new research from the University of Salzburg, Austria.

Impostor syndrome, also known as "impostor phenomenon," is commonly defined as a feeling of inadequacy in a professional context. Individuals—who are often high achieving—live in fear of being exposed as frauds: They lack faith or confidence in their abilities and feel they've stumbled into high-powered careers through dumb luck. While typically considered to be a millennial problem, in fact impostor syndrome was first identified by clinical psychologists in the 1970s.

A research team led by Dr. Mirjam Neureiter analyzed the responses to a questionnaire sent out to 238 University of Salzburgalumni working in a range of industries. Respondents were asked how much they agree with statements such as, "I can give the impression that I'm more competent than I really am."

They found that those who felt like impostors were overwhelmingly more likely to exhibit poor career management strategies—in effect, they were sabotaging their own careers. "The main conclusion of our research," explains Neureiter, "is that impostor feelings are fostered by fear of failure, fear of success, and low self-esteem, and that they decrease career planning, career striving, and the motivation to lead."

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In particular, feeling like an impostor makes you less likely to plan your career, want to lead a professional team, or even aim for a particular career when you're still a student. "From this we concluded that impostor phenomenon is relevant to career development in different ways at different career stages," Neureiter says.

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Individuals who feel like professional frauds were less likely to manage their careers appropriately. In turn, this negatively impacted their sense of optimism about their careers, their ability to react well to new working conditions, and awareness of the broader job market. In essence, they sabotaged their careers: "They set their goals too low according to their potential," Neureiter explains.

I ask Neureiter whether woman might be more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome than men. She responds by highlighting pre-existing research, particularly a 2015 study that found a link between gender differences, impostor syndrome, and academic outcomes in a US undergraduate context. "Their findings suggest the impostor phenomenon plays a more important role in achievement for women than men."

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Neureiter argues for greater recognition of the damaging consequences of impostor syndrome in professional context. "As the impostor phenomenon contains the fear of being exposed, it might be expedient to provide networking programs or supervision groups where sufferers have the chance to share their experiences and feelings without any blaming." Basically, like AA, but for neurotic high-achievers who worry they're secretly terrible at their jobs.

Ultimately the only way to tackle impostor syndrome is to confront it. "Clock it, pay attention to it, and pull it apart," advises executive career coach Zena Everett. "Like many unhelpful thinking patterns, it won't go away until you address it." She argues that you should think practically about what you can do that will make you feel more confident in your role. "Can I improve my skills? Can I delegate? Learn some coping strategies that will help you deal with those feelings, and remember that you're in that job for a reason—someone clearly thinks you're good enough."

Neureiter agrees. "I'm convinced that more educational work is needed to prevent the development of impostor phenomenon, or even reduce its frequency. If suffering individuals are able to talk about how they feel with other people, we can help to overcome the impostor phenomenon and its negative consequences."

When it comes to impostor syndrome, openness is key. Unless you are actually shit at your job, obviously. Best to keep that one quiet.