Research has shown that imposter syndrome can actually be an advantage

Jul 09, 2021 Diversity & InclusionIndustry NewsResources 6 minutes read

Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? Well, you’re not alone, research by the International Journal of Behavioural Science has revealed that more than 70% of people are affected by workplace imposter thoughts at some point in their lives.

Experiencing feelings that your work achievements are undeserved, or that you are a fraud waiting to be found out are all very common. Usually, you will find that people will work their whole lives to overcome these feelings and try to silence the thoughts. Imposter syndrome has long been perceived as harmful to productivity and success. But what if these feelings and experiences could actually work to your advantage?

Recent findings by Basima Tewfik, assistant professor of Work and Organisation Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that the behaviours that ‘imposters’ exhibit in an attempt to compensate for their self-doubt can actually make them good at their jobs.

Tewfik argues that if people who are experiencing inadequate thoughts lean into these feelings, rather than trying to resist them, and put more energy into communication, they can actually outperform someone who does not feel like an imposter. In this respect, Tewfik is highlighting that a trait most people dislike in themselves could be a factor in motivating them to perform better.

Striving for perfection

Most people who experience imposter syndrome will be perfectionists. Striving for perfection in everything we do isn’t sustainable, and so we are setting ourselves up to fail. As Tewfik explains, when perfection isn’t achieved “imposters often feel overwhelmed, disappointed, and overgeneralise themselves as failures”. This can also lead to people who feel like imposters forbidding themselves from accepting and celebrating positive feedback at work.

For example, say there is a big presentation coming up at work, someone experiencing imposter syndrome may overprepare to try to overcome the fear of being inadequate. However, if it is a success, they will still feel disheartened, because they will feel they wasted too much time unnecessarily.

The research

One of the main points that Tewfik highlights in her ground-breaking report is that one of the key definers of imposter syndrome is the gap in how people perceive their own competence, compared to how competent they actually are.

To prove this, Tewfik worked alongside supervisors at an investment-advisory firm for two months to observed and score the interpersonal skill of their employees. Some of these employees had highlighted that they were experiencing imposter syndrome. Tewfik found that despite feelings of self-doubt, the employees suffering from imposter syndrome were rated higher for interpersonal skills than those who were ‘non-imposters’. The supervisors also described the employees suffering from imposter syndrome as better collaborators who worked very well with colleagues.

To corroborate these findings, Tewfik also worked with a group of medical students in their final years before entering clinics. They were first asked to write about a time they had felt like ‘imposters’, an exercise that Tewfik describes as evoking imposter syndrome in a controlled environment. The students were then tasked with diagnosing certain ailments that a group of actors had been trained to project symptoms of a certain disease. For a second time, Tewfik found that the students who most suffered from imposter syndrome received higher scores for their interpersonal skills and bedside manner, they also correctly diagnosed the same number of patients. This shows that even the students who felt like frauds performed at an equal or higher level than their ‘non-imposter’ colleagues.

Tewfik explains: “They were more empathetic, they were better listeners, they asked better questions, the imposter students were also observed to hold more frequent eye contact, lean forward more and better affirm the symptoms their patients described.”

This exercise was again repeated with a group of job seekers during a pre-interview, informal chat with hiring managers. Tewfik found that the results revealed yet again that the job seekers who showed signs of experiencing imposter syndrome were rated more interpersonally effective by hiring managers than their ‘non-imposter’ peers. The results showed that they chose to ask more engaging questions, provided more appealing answers, and weren’t regarded as any less qualified to advance.

Imposter syndrome can be an advantage

For years, imposter syndrome has been portrayed as something that holds us back, and of course, it can do this. Crippling feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy can be debilitating and impact our working life. However, if you choose to be proactive in how you deal with these thoughts, it can actually give you an advantage and work to improve your skills.

Tewfik’s research suggests that people experiencing imposter syndrome who believe they are masquerading as someone more capable than they actually are, may not be negatively impacting the quality of their work after all. Plus, if these thoughts lead them to put extra effort into their interpersonal connections, it may even help them outperform their ‘non-imposter’ colleagues.

As Tewfik highlights: “All of this together makes me pretty excited, there might be this upside, and maybe we should start to think about harnessing it.”

Self-doubt is normal – let’s channel it in a positive way!

This new research has hopefully made people rethink their thoughts of self-doubt. We should no longer be disheartened by these negative thoughts, instead, it’s about using them to motivate us and push forward.

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.”

Self-doubt is normal and can even be healthy, especially when developing interpersonal skills and communication. Instead of believing that they are holding us back, we can channel it in a positive way.

STEM Women

At STEM Women, we host networking and career events that help people who identify as female and non-binary start their careers in STEM industries. Our events help minority groups to ‘see themselves’ in these career paths by having the chance to listen to inspiring talks from real people working in STEM, chat to representatives from top employers, and learn more about the industry.STEM Women Event Panel Session

The talks during the events usually cover topics like imposter syndrome, giving attendees the chance to see ‘successful’ speakers talk honestly about their career paths and the challenges they have overcome. We believe that by increasing the exposure young women have to strong role models in STEM, it will help them to have the confidence to pursue careers in this exciting industry.

One attendee at a STEM Women event highlighted how our events helped her to gain confidence:

“Hearing the experiences of other women in similar situations as me gave me the confidence to apply for jobs that I otherwise might not have applied for.”

For more information about STEM Women events, visit our events page. Follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for more insights and to stay up to date with our news.