The Impostor Syndrome or What Stops Us From Growing Professionally

Patricea Pop

9 minutes read

“We know that many people experience the imposter syndrome, so we encourage you to apply even if you don’t meet all the requirements.” This is how a job ad at a company recruiting remotely sounds like and it’s one of the few ads out there that encourage the candidates who have the tendency to disqualify themselves on the grounds that they’re not good enough for the position.

There are talented and hard-working job-seekers with notable accomplishments in their field who choose to take a step back when faced with professional opportunities. Although their CVs are full of professional achievements, they believe it’s mainly due to luck or chance rather than because of their qualities and skills.

Whether we are aware of it or not, the impostor syndrome has an impact on the recruitment processes, it influences our career decisions and does not discriminate: both men and women from all professional fields face this challenge at some point in their careers. Surprisingly, even the famous have struggled with it.

Sheryl Sandberg, Michelle Obama or Tom Hanks are just a few examples of successful people who have admitted to having to deal with this syndrome.

Today, when social media allows us to enter the world of others and when it has become so increasingly tempting to compare ourselves to other people’s success, perpetuating the cycle of self-doubt is really easy.

The term “impostor syndrome” was defined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. However, it is not a clinical diagnosis but rather a temporary state of mind, which often makes you:

  • feel you don’t deserve to sit at the table with others;
  • doubt your knowledge and know-how;
  • underestimate your achievements;
  • be afraid that the “truth” about you will come out;
  • attribute your achievements to luck and circumstances;
  • compare yourself to others and their success;
  • feel that you are not prepared enough.

Although you go to great lengths to achieve your goals, you fail to communicate your value during the interviews but also later in your daily life at the office.

Under the weight of self-doubt, you’ll project your lack of confidence outside. If you don’t trust yourself then why should anyone else do it?

When the syndrome sets in, motivation goes out the door and you fail to speak with authority on topics you definitely master. In terms of language, you are betrayed by phrases like “I’m not an expert, but…”, or “that might be a stupid question”, etc.

The good thing about hiring someone with imposter syndrome is that they will work hard to exceed expectations. If you have such employees in your team it’s a sign that you have surrounded yourself with highly intelligent individuals who are eager to deliver excellence.

On the less positive note though, this kind of employee is more prone to ending up with burnout: it becomes exhausting to over-deliver. Working hard to meet self-imposed standards of perfectionism and to prove yourself all the time takes its toll sooner or later.

Another negative aspect is that such an employee doesn’t share their ideas and solutions, doesn’t have a voice in meetings and fails to ask for what they want.

What can be done at organisational level?

Delivering positive feedback frequently is important when we want to send out the message that we see and appreciate the effort that is being put in.

Another factor that brings medium and long-term benefits is cultivating a growth-oriented mindset in the workplace. This encourages the appetite for development and education, two instruments that can support transformation at work.

In companies with poor communication, unclear expectations and where competition between employees is fierce, this syndrome is more likely to be activated.

From an organisational point of view, culture plays an important role.

Can you have this discussion with your manager or HR department?

Maybe not, because such a topic is not yet part of the norm. We’re not used to sharing this kind of information with others and we don’t have many examples of people who do this around us. That’s why, in the first instance, a buddy or mentor may be the best solution. Because yes, you do need support if you wish to overcome this challenge.

Although having fears and self-doubt is part of the game and they often increase when we are to take the next step in our career, we seldom discuss this openly. Not that many leaders talk about their own insecurities and fail to set an example themselves in this regard.

Whoever brings such topics to the table and does not give in to the voice of the imposter who whispers: “who are you to do this?”, will enjoy the benefits, both individually and organisationally.

But truth be told, it’s not enough just to talk about it.

Ultimately, every small step in the right direction brings value and the game changes when you act in spite of your self-doubts.

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Written by Patricea Pop


It is said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a simple step and mine started a few summers ago when I wanted to do something for myself, so I enrolled in a coaching programme. This gave me the chance to look at myself from a different perspective: little did I know that it would take me to a different career path, that of being a coach.

After more than 12 years in the corporate world which taught me many lessons and several years of preparation for my new role, I now support people in business to improve their self leadership skills. I think leadership is an inside job and it is part soul searching, part strategy and part relationship skills.

I love writing about work and organizations because it is the place where we invest heavily our time and energy and we often end up feeling stressed, trapped and dissatisfied. My strength relies on my resilience, critical thinking and intuition and I believe it is an honour to accompany someone on their inner journey.

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