It’s no wonder that imposter syndrome − the feeling that your work achievements are undeserved and that you are likely to be exposed as a fraud – has long been perceived by those experiencing it as harmful to their success. Believing you’re unworthy of your accomplishments and that someone will eventually see through your charade naturally adds an unwanted layer of pressure to the workday.
But according to recent findings from Basima Tewfik, assistant professor of Work and Organization Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the behaviours that ‘imposters’ exhibit in an attempt to compensate for their self-doubt can actually make them good at their jobs.
By leaning into the feelings of inadequacy – rather than trying to resist or overcome them – and putting extra effort into communication, imposters can actually outperform their non-imposter peers in interpersonal skills. What this means, says Tewfik, is that a trait most people dislike in themselves may in fact be motivating them to perform better.
The imposter cycle
According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, more than 70% of people are affected by workplace imposter thoughts at some point in their lives. And while specific workplace pressure-points vary across careers, the internal symptoms typically remain the same.
Imposters have perfectionist tendencies, harbouring a secret need to be the very best at what they do. When they are unable to fulfil their perfectionist goals, “imposters often feel overwhelmed, disappointed, and overgeneralise themselves as failures”. A cycle thus emerges in the workplace that causes imposters to forbid themselves from accepting positive feedback on their work.
If anxiety about underperforming leads them to over-prepare for a presentation, for example, even if the presentation is successful, they will feel like they expended too much effort in the process – accomplishing the task should have been easier. On the other hand, if they procrastinate over an assignment and still manage to hand it in on time, they attribute their success to luck rather than their own ability.
In her upcoming report, the first of its kind to identify tangible benefits that can emerge from workplace imposter thoughts, Tewfik posits that one of the main definers of imposter syndrome is a gap in how individuals perceive their own competence compared to how competent they actually are. Tewfik wanted to find out how that perceived competence gap might impact on imposters’ careers – both in terms of the quality of their work and their social standing among colleagues.
She began by working with supervisors at an investment-advisory firm, who observed and scored the interpersonal skills of their employees – some of whom were experiencing imposter thoughts – over two months. What Tewfik found was that despite their self-doubt, the finance workers experiencing imposter thoughts were actually rated more interpersonally effective than their non-imposter peers; managers described them as better collaborators who worked well with colleagues.
She then worked with a group of late-stage medical students about to enter their clinical rotation. Some of them were first induced to experience imposter thoughts by writing about a time when they had experienced them in the past – a process that effectively produces the conditions of imposter syndrome even in a controlled environment, says Tewfik. Students were then tasked with diagnosing the ailments of actors trained to manifest the symptoms and demeanour of someone with a particular disease. Once again, Tewfik found that the imposter students received higher ratings on their bedside manner from the patients.
Although they may have felt fraudulent, preliminary analyses show that the imposter interviewees performed at a similar level to their colleagues in their “competence behaviour”
“They were more empathetic, they were better listeners, they asked better questions,” she says, noting that the imposter students were also observed to hold more frequent eye contact, lean forward more and better affirm the symptoms their patients described.
In a final experiment, Tewfik observed a group of subjects posing as job seekers during a pre-interview “coffee chat” with a hiring manager. If they impressed the manager and showed themselves to be qualified for the position, they would be given the opportunity to formally interview. As with the previous test, the interviewees induced to experience imposter thoughts were rated as more interpersonally effective by hiring managers than their non-imposter peers – they chose to ask more engaging questions and provided more appealing answers.
And though they may have felt fraudulent, preliminary analyses show that the imposter interviewees performed at a similar level to their colleagues in their “competence behaviour” – they weren’t regarded as any less qualified to advance on to a formal interview. Similarly, the imposter medical students from the previous experiment made just as many correct diagnoses during their evaluation as the others.
“A lot of people sort of paint [imposter syndrome] as this thing that’s holding you back. So, we would expect, for example, that maybe you’d be a poor performer,” says Tewfik. “There’s actually no significant difference [in competence] between those who are induced to have imposter thoughts and those who are not.”
What her research so far suggests is that this perceived competence gap – the idea that imposters are masquerading as someone more capable than they really are − may not be negatively affecting the quality of their work after all. And, if their self-doubt leads them to put extra effort into their interpersonal connections, it may even help them outperform their non-imposter colleagues.
“All of this together makes me pretty excited,” she says. “There might be this upside, and maybe we should start to think about harnessing it.”
Imposter syndrome has been studied for decades, but very little research has emerged on its implications for success. Until Tewfik unveiled her newest findings, it was widely assumed that the condition was debilitating, according to Adam Grant, organisational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Her research is breaking new ground in highlighting that imposter thoughts can be a source of fuel,” he says. “It can motivate us to work harder to prove ourselves and work smarter to fill gaps in our knowledge and skills.”
Although there are a number of existing recommendations to help workers try to overcome their imposter feelings, experts believe that the real goal should be to revise the underlying assumption that imposter syndrome is purely detrimental. It’s true that some people carry a chronic belief that they’re frauds, but for most of us, it manifests as ordinary doubts about whether we’re up to the challenges we’re confronted with, says Grant.
In those moments where you feel like an imposter… you realise ‘I have something to prove’, so you’re not complacent – Scott Galloway
And although this self-scepticism can induce stress, fear or lowered self-confidence, Tewfik’s research “reveals that those doubts are normal and even healthy. Instead of holding us back, they can propel us forward”, he adds.
According to Scott Galloway, entrepreneur and professor of marketing at New York University, the best course of action for workers hoping to harness this new potential is to step past the negative emotion component and lean further into the imposter feelings. Focusing in on the perceived competence gap between you and your peers − and putting your energy towards closing it − just might give you the edge you’re looking for.
“In those moments where you feel like an imposter… you realise ‘I have something to prove’, so you’re not complacent,” he said during a segment highlighting Tewfik’s work on his and Kara Swisher’s podcast Pivot. “Hey, you know what, this might be a moment for confident humility where I can recognise how little I know and yet have a strong conviction in my capability to learn.”