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Imposter Syndrome Upside? Not Exactly…

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

Could “Imposter Syndrome” have an upside? Research reported in the Harvard Business Review and other media outlets indicates that imposter thoughts—thinking ”that you are not as competent as others believe you to be”—is correlated with behaviors that have an interpersonal benefit. In one study, Basima Tewfik at MIT’s Sloan School of Management found that doctors in training who had more imposter thoughts were rated more highly by their patients for their interpersonal skills in sensitive patient interactions (and no less likely to give the correct diagnosis). In another study, job candidates who were primed to have more imposter thoughts asked more questions in job interviews and were rated more highly by hiring managers for their interpersonal skills, and equally likely to be invited for further interviews. According to Tewfik, these results indicate that imposter thoughts make you more other-oriented and thus more likable.

Tewfik is not the first to suggest that feeling like an imposter is not all bad. Seth Godin argues that it’s a normal part of doing something new. “Everyone who is doing important work is working on something that might not work. And it’s extremely likely that they’re also not the very best qualified person on the planet to be doing that work.”

Here’s the thing: both Tewfik and Godin are not really talking about true imposter syndrome—the deep belief in your unworthiness and an accompanying debilitating, all-consuming fear that you are about to be discovered as a fraud. You do not have “imposter syndrome” just because you sometimes feel worried that you are not up to the job or that other people have overestimated your capabilities, any more than you have ADHD just because you have a hard time focusing on unpleasant tasks or spend too much time on your phone. In fact, if you never worry about your competence or worthiness, you are probably at risk of being an arrogant jerk.

Many of my up-and-coming clients—whether they are rising leaders in tech companies, first-time executives, or mid-level law firm associates—mention that they battle “imposter syndrome,” but I believe they are misdiagnosing themselves and misusing this term. Instead, it is more useful frame the discussion as a spectrum of self-awareness and confidence.

  • One one end is characterized by an extreme overestimation of one’s competence and presenting as overconfidence, (the clueless idiot of the Dunning-Kruger effect graph.)
  • The other end is imposter syndrome, characterized by an extreme underestimation of one’s competence, which presents as low confidence, fear and lack of belonging. It occurs at higher rates among women, especially women of color.

Both are distortions of reality because they are inaccurate assessments of one’s ability, and both have negative consequences. The clueless jerk’s overconfidence leads to bad decisions and mistakes. The person plagued by fear and under-confidence may be isolated, anxious and caught in analysis paralysis or overworking and at risk for burnout.

Leaders and other professionals would do well to seek equilibrium somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: self-aware, with a balance self-confidence and humility. Try the following:

  • Know yourself. Develop an accurate assessment of your competencies and know your strengths and weaknesses. Seek feedback. Reflect on your performance, skills and talents. How do you want to grow and stretch?
  • Cultivate a growth mindset. Recognize that your competencies are not fixed, but that you can continue to stretch and develop. Treat your successes and failures as opportunities to learn rather than judgements of your worth.
  • Experiment and take risks. To grow and learn and do great stuff, you will likely need to extend beyond what you have done before. Rely on your strengths and be mindful of where the stretch is. As London Business School’s Herminia Ibarra argues that feeling like a fake can be a sign of growth.
  • Practice self-compassion. When you feel anxious, don’t rush to diagnose or label yourself but rather acknowledge that feeling scared or uncomfortable is normal and human. As Seth Godin says, “Time spent fretting about our status as impostors is time away from dancing with our fear, from leading and from doing work that matters.” Offer yourself kindness and encouragement.
  • Seek connection and collaboration. One of the most painful aspects of true imposter syndrome is a feeling of not belonging and being alone. Finding opportunities to collaborate with others and to know and be known by colleagues on a human level builds trust, belonging and resilience.

Instead of being so quick to diagnose ourselves and others as being afflicted with imposter syndrome, I suggest we reclaim the virtue of humility. The real lesson from Tewfik’s research is not that imposter syndrome has its upside but rather that some of the behaviors associated with imposter syndrome, such as questioning oneself and one’s assumptions—practicing humility and curiosity—promotes interpersonal connection.