Employer support can help overcome crippling imposter syndrome

Out-Law Analysis | 17 Dec 2021 | 10:34 am | 2 min. read

Authentic leadership and mentoring programmes are essential tools for employers to put in place to combat imposter syndrome – the psychological phenomenon estimated to affect up to 70 per cent of people.

The term ‘imposter syndrome’ was first coined in the 1970s to describe the feeling felt by many that they are a fraud in their job. It can be applied to those who feel they do not belong, or who have reached a position that they feel unworthy of.

Although imposter syndrome can affect anyone, it is most common amongst people in their 30s and 40s, whose careers are advancing quickly and who are becoming increasingly successful. It is also most common amongst women.

At a recent Female Futures Forum event hosted by Pinsent Masons Dubai on overcoming imposter syndrome, clinical psychologist Karen Anne Hope Andrews of Be Psychology Centre for Emotional Wellbeing explained that imposter syndrome has its roots in childhood.

Authentic leadership approaches, with managers allowing employees to see a ‘human’ side, are also valuable, as this shows staff that managers can be vulnerable and experience stress too

Andrews said feelings of imposter syndrome can be created by three key factors: how primary caregivers interact with children; the context of macro and micro-environments such as race, nationality, geographical location, socio-economic background; and how children interpret ‘wounding’ experiences.

These factors can negatively impact the inherent drive towards self-realisation which everyone is born with, and help an individual establish a set of negative core beliefs including ideas such as ‘I am not good enough’.

The impact on women in the workplace

Gender equality in the workplace remains a challenge around the world, with women under-represented at management and board level and data showing that a gender pay gap still persists.

As a result, women have fewer accessible and relatable female role models to be inspired by, or guided by, in their careers. Support of career progression and formal mentorship programmes continue to be limited and the many roadblocks to success are too often not discussed or addressed.

This leaves many women feeling isolated and unsupported in their career growth, and even when women achieve senior positions, they are more likely to feel unworthy once they arrive at them. There is much more progress to be made, and corporate and industry cultures continue to demonstrate barriers in terms of bias towards women and more especially, to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) women. It is, to some extent, the lack of systemic support and validation in their careers that leads to more women experiencing imposter syndrome today.

How employers can address imposter syndrome

Employers must do more than pay lip service to mental health awareness and maintaining a work-life balance. Our second speaker Caroline Faraj, VP Arabic Services at CNN, said that mentorship plays a vital role in ensuring that everyone within an organisation feels included and validated.

Valuable mentoring programmes can include the creation of a ‘safe space’ for mentees to discuss concerns, with mentors offering advice only when asked and largely fulfilling a listening role.

Authentic leadership approaches, with managers allowing employees to see a ‘human’ side, are also valuable, as this shows staff that managers can be vulnerable and experience stress too.

These types of approaches assist in addressing imposter syndrome on a systemic basis and make those experiencing imposter syndrome feel more comfortable speaking up about their experience and seeking assistance.

HR teams can lead the fight against imposter syndrome by encouraging frank discussions within the workplace.

Employees should also be encouraged to speak up and seek guidance or therapy and talk about the root causes of the imposter syndrome they are experiencing, or to advocate for a mentorship scheme if one is not available.