AltoPartners Guide to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: What is Imposter Syndrome, and is it a leadership issue?

April 28, 2023 Share this article:

DE&I Imposter Syndrome

“I got a raise. Now they will finally discover that I am useless. I won’t find another job at a similar salary because everyone knows that I do not deserve it.” - A highly educated, hardworking and loyal employee, managing a team of five and consistently earning high performance bonuses.

This person suffers from imposter syndrome, when an individual doubts their accomplishments and fears being exposed as a fraud despite having evidence of their competence.

The phenomenon was first described in 1978, by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance who saw it in high-achieving professional women. WebMD reports that one study found that about 70% of all people have felt like an imposter at some point. Among those reported to have felt this kind of self-doubt are scientist Albert Einstein, athlete Serena Williams, singer Jennifer Lopez, and actors Natalie Portman, Lupita Nyong’o, and Tom Hanks.

Studies show that people who are different from most of their peers (women in high-tech careers or first-generation college students) are more likely to have imposter syndrome. Research has also found that imposter syndrome is common among Black American, Asian American, and Latine college students in the United States.

Members of the AltoPartners network say that they have seen their fair share of people struggling with imposter syndrome.

Corinne Klajda, Managing Partner / Accord Group Poland, says she sees it more often in women than in male candidates. “Even when they rank high on capabilities and everything shows that they can do the job, they tend to question themselves more.”

Patrycja Lachowska, Partner / Accord Group Poland, says she sees it often in hard-working people. In one case, a high-performing person has spent years doubting himself. “He’s been congratulated on how good he is in team management but he lives in constant fear of being found out as the wrong person for the job.” The person still earns below the market rate, Lachowska notes.

Greta Frey, Senior Consultant at MPB Recruitment Group AG / AltoPartners Switzerland, says imposter syndrome often manifests itself in interview situations. “People can be successful, but they have doubts about their success, or are worried about how they are perceived, and this comes across in an interview.”

What causes imposter syndrome

Arasteh Gatchpazian, writing for The Berkeley Well-Being Institute, says that imposter syndrome is not a mental disorder, but a phenomenon that many people experience, some more often than others. Causes vary:

Major life events: It can be as simple as starting a new job. Transitions from one role to another can cause people to question their abilities.

Social and family pressures: The way you are treated by others can impact how you view yourself. Imposter syndrome can develop among children who are harshly judged by their families as less intelligent than other family members – but also among children with families who perceive their child as highly intelligent and competent. This may be because these children feel pressured to please their families and doubt themselves in situations where their skills are challenged, writes Gatchpazian.

Stereotypes and prejudice: People who belong to groups subject to stereotyping and prejudice can be affected by imposter syndrome. If stereotypes label individuals from certain groups as less intelligent and less competent, that narrative can be internalised as a belief among members of that group.

Other mental illnesses: Imposter syndrome commonly co-occurs with anxiety and depression. And people who are introverted are more likely to experience imposter syndrome.

What does imposter syndrome feel like?

Keith Labbett, Managing Partner / AltoPartners Toronto, says he has observed while working with CEOs that one aspect of imposter syndrome is a tendency to decide what someone else is thinking without actually knowing that person’s thoughts.

Klajda says it is her biggest challenge. “At times I feel like a pendulum, one moment I am rocking on top of the world… and then I am wondering if I am in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.”

How does imposter syndrome affect leaders in the workplace?

Kladja says imposter syndrome can be a positive thing. “These people will tend to work harder and push themselves and their teams to deliver above what is required of them, just to prove that they can.”

Mpho Nkeli, Executive Chairman / AltoPartners Johannesburg, notes on the other hand that imposter syndrome can slow down decision making, and may result in limited consultation with leadership teams.

Lachowska warns that living in constant fear of being “discovered as a fraud” affects people’s performance and leadership skills – and their health. “When someone’s health falls apart, everything starts falling. Leaders lose confidence in every decision they make; they do not know how to be assertive. They may feel they are not knowledgeable enough or qualified to lead the team effectively. Or they may hold back from taking risks and pursuing new opportunities which can lead to issues in their own development.”

Klajda ran 250km across the Namib Desert in 2021, raising almost US$60,000 for scholarships for 10 Paralympian girls and has just completed a gruelling ultra-race in the Atacama Desert in Chile as part of Racing the Planet’s Four Deserts Ultramarathon series. And yet, she says: “About two weeks before a race I am in panic mode. How could I have thought I could do such a thing? This kicks in again when the race gets really tough… I only believe I can do it when I am at the finish line. After two desert runs, I am still fighting thoughts like ‘you are not an athlete’.”

How to deal with it?

Frey suggests that people who feel they are imposters should keep reminding themselves of their accomplishments. “Surround yourself with people who believe in you, and avoid comparing yourself to others,” she says.

Nkeli and Kladja are firm believers in coaching and mentoring. Kladja says: “Sometimes all you need is to air your concerns and have a trusted person tell you otherwise. One of my business coaches said this to me once as I was struggling in a new role: ‘Corinne, when you were awarded merit-based scholarships, was the committee awarding the scholarship blind? And when your employer paid for your MBA, they shouldn’t have put you in the internal talent pipeline? And when the previous owners of your firm sold you the business, they thought you would fail? Twenty years later, have you failed? All the people who crossed your path are all blind idiots?’ That was enough to get me back up and going.”

Lachowska says the first step is to recognise the feeling and admit to it. “Think about the things that trigger it. You can work on it by yourself: try to rephrase the negative thoughts to positive ones, practice self-compassion. But I think the best option is to find a therapist / coach / mentor or even a good friend or family member. Speak to someone. It is not easy. That might be the hardest road you will take. But it is worth it. You are worth it!”

Patrycja Lachowska
Associate Partner & Head of Financial Practice Poland & Baltics AltoPartners Warsaw
Mpho Nkeli
Executive Chairman & Head: Board Practice AltoPartners Johannesburg