At some point in your professional life, you’ve probably felt like a fraud. Maybe you were praised for something you thought wasn’t worthy of the accolades, or maybe you were recognized in front of peers but felt unworthy, certain you’d soon be exposed as undeserving of the attention.
You’re not alone. Imposter Phenomenon (IP) is a well-known concept, first introduced back in the 1970s to describe high-performers who felt anything but on the inside. And despite years of research on IP, not much was known about the underpinnings of IP–what traits led to it and what people were more likely to suffer from it.
Jasmine Vergauwe and her Ghent University colleagues Bart Wille, Marjolein Feys, Filip de Fruyt, and Frederik Anseel believe they’ve begun to uncover some of the personality traits that may lead to IP, as outlined in a recent paper in the Journal of Business and Psychology. The team found that those who showed IP tendencies were most likely to measure high on perfectionism and neuroticism, and measure lower on self-efficacy, conscientiousness, and organizational citizenship.
It’s only the first step in what Vergauwe hopes is much deeper research into connecting personality to imposter phenomenon. I spoke with Vergauwe to learn more about what she’s discovering about the type of people who suffer from IP and what can be done about it.
HBR: Since IP has been a concept for 30-40 years, I’m surprised that no one has explored its psychological underpinnings before. What made you want to explore it?
Vergauwe: Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes — who first described the IP — initially emphasized environmental influences in the development and sustaining of impostor tendencies, such as early family dynamics. As a consequence, other researchers also focused on situational variables, like parental overprotection and family achievement orientation, in relation to the IP. It’s only recently that researchers have started to consider personality variables.
Obviously, both situation as well as personality will certainly have their influence, as is the case for probably most psychological phenomena. So there were in fact a few studies that took personality into account, but we sought to extend previous findings by examining a broader trait spectrum.
How prevalent is IP? Are there data on how many people are feeling like fakes at work?
We prefer a dimensional perspective on impostor tendencies instead of the categorical approach (differentiating between “impostors” and “non-impostors”). Unlike the categorical approach, which uses—often arbitrary—cut-offs to differentiate between only two “types,” the dimensional assessment considers the full range of scores. A person is not either a narcissist or not, but can more accurately be described in terms of his or her score on narcissistic tendencies. Similarly, there exists a wide range of impostor tendencies in the population.
However, in order to enable comparisons with prior studies, we also provided base rate information of categorized “impostors.” Based on our study in a Belgian adult working sample, 20% of our sample was categorized feeling like an “impostor.” We found the IP to be equally prevalent in all organizational layers, from the junior to executive levels, although the prevalence was somewhat higher among starters (27%). Most of the existing studies have addressed the IP in student samples, in which the prevalence seems to be even higher (around 30 to 40%).
The underlying traits that you say connect to IP — perfectionism and neuroticism — seem to be an insidious combo. You seek perfection but you’re also neurotic which probably makes you anxious when you don’t achieve perfection. Seems like a vicious cycle?
It is indeed a vicious cycle, in the literature even referred to as “the impostor cycle.” When an achievement-related task is assigned to them, impostors are usually plagued with worry, self-doubt, and anxiety. In order to deal with these feelings, they either extremely over-prepare a task or initially procrastinate and then follow that with frenzied preparation. Mostly, they succeed, and they experience temporary feelings of elation and relief. However, instead of being happy with what they have accomplished, and strengthened in their self-efficacy, their success reinforces the feelings of fraudulence rather than weakening them, because in their mind, this success does not reflect true ability (“Of course I’ve succeeded, I’ve put an excessive amount of effort and time in this project, maybe double than someone else would have needed”). Once a new task is assigned, feelings of anxiety and self-doubt re-occur.
It seems like people who feel like imposters would be overly conscientious in an effort to overcome the feeling. But you found that they scored low on conscientiousness?
We indeed replicated the negative relationship between impostor tendencies and conscientiousness that was also found in other studies. Given that the IP construct is used to describe people who deliver superior work, and conscientiousness is known to be a good predictor for academic and job performance, this negative association doesn’t seem to make sense. Although one aspect of conscientiousness is indeed related to self-perceived competence, the observed negative relationship still raises questions. Therefore, we raised the alternative explanation that it’s possible that they consistently underestimate and downgrade themselves, especially with regard to performance. This would mean that impostors perceive and describe themselves as lower on conscientiousness, while in reality they are not. Perhaps impostors set very high standards for themselves, and feel that they “cannot be conscientious enough.”
IP sufferers also scored low on what you call “organizational citizenship.” How do you define that?
Organizational citizenship behavior, or briefly OCB, refers to behaviors that go beyond your job requirements, such as helping colleagues with their work, working longer than you are expected to work, attending meetings that are not mandatory. We argued that due to the fear of being exposed, impostors can become so engaged in their own tasks and performance that there remains less energy for tasks that are not part of their job description. Presuming that high personal achievement is the ultimate cover for their self-perceived fraudulence, and that personal resources are restricted, we expected impostors to be less inclined to engage in OCB. However, similar as for conscientiousness, the negative relationship might also be due to a general tendency to downgrade oneself.
You report that people who suffer from IP don’t necessarily love their jobs, but also that they’re afraid to leave them. Could leaving a job mitigate the IP by providing the proverbial “fresh start”?
Most who suffer from IP feel that they are in the wrong position right now, that they are selected in a job of higher responsibility and salary than they deserve. In the case they would consider leaving their current job, they probably feel that they are not able to find a job at the same level. So they stay. Leaving their current job obviously frightens them, as this involves a major risk to be “exposed” in the selection procedure of any other job. Although this hasn’t been investigated yet, I don’t believe that being hired for a new job would be perceived as a “fresh start” or would break the impostor cycle. Instead, succeeding (i.e., being hired) only reinforces their feeling of being a fraud (“I have fooled them again…”).
Are there health effects of suffering from IP—can it be debilitating for some?
Other research has indeed demonstrated that the IP may have detrimental effects on people’s personal well-being, as the IP has found to be related to feelings of depression and overall poorer mental health.
You mention briefly possible ways to combat IP. Strong workplace support is one. What are some others?
Employees hampered by strong impostor tendencies could perhaps benefit from individual coaching programs, including cognitive behavior exercises that focus on the alleviation of maladaptive perfectionistic concerns and the enhancement of self-efficacy. However, this is only an assumption. Future research could shed light on these issues. Moreover, it’s important to note that impostor tendencies do not operate in an environmental vacuum. Awareness of environmental triggers might also enhance the understanding of feelings and (irrational) thoughts associated with IP.
What do you mean by environmental triggers?
In other words, the pressure to perform and get ahead within a high achievement-oriented and challenging business environment. We promote until we reach the level of incompetence, and burnout is omnipresent since many of us have to deal with feelings of insecurity, stress, and fear of failure as a consequence of the high-demand fields. Failing is just not an option, and career advancement helps to ensure employment security in these economically difficult times.
Within this context, it is not unthinkable that for a certain category of employees who are prone to feelings of fear and incompetence, this economic climate may also constitute a breeding ground for dysfunctional thoughts and feelings associated with IP. Although our research group doesn’t focus on potential cultural differences, we are currently gathering new data, including observer-reports of personality and performance measures, to shed light on the “underreporting-hypothesis.”
What else can be studied with regard to IP? What else do people not know or understand about IP?
Imposter phenomenon is still relatively poorly understood. These are some ideas about what could be next:
Observer-reports and objective measures of intelligence will probably advance our basic understanding of IP, and we can always learn more about how to mitigate or buffer IP tendencies. Although one can imagine that the IP must influence one’s career trajectories, career outcomes have been ignored in the literature. The influence of leader-member-exchange on impostors’ career success, as well as different leadership styles in relation to the IP could be interesting topics. Nowadays, most people are inclined to think in a linear way in terms of career advancement. Every next step, must be a higher step. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. For a certain type of people, “a step back can be a step forward.” In this regard, Peter’s principle and the Imposter Phenomenon could be investigated simultaneously and related to leadership derailment research. Taken together, the unknown is still huge compared to what we already know about this phenomenon.
Scott Berinato is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of Good Charts: The HBR Guide to Making Smarter, More Persuasive Data Visualizations, forthcoming from Harvard Business Review Press and available for pre-order now.
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