For the past decade, Simon Brisk has run a successful digital marketing agency and SEO platform that has accumulated clients like eBay and Holiday Inn. But back when he was starting the business, he didn’t have quite the confidence he would come to have.
“I had to struggle with accepting my successes as authentic results of my own hard work,” recalled Brisk, cofounder and CEO of U.K.-based Click Intelligence. “At the start, whenever I would onboard a client, I would start doubting my own abilities to deliver the quality of marketing campaigns which I had promised. I knew I had the skillset and natural knack for marketing, but every successful campaign felt like it was either due to luck or that anyone could’ve done it.”
It was only after several years and after the company gained traction in the market that he finally accepted his potential and self-worth. “It takes a lot of consistent good results to break the imposter syndrome curse,” said Brisk.
Since the pandemic struck, professional coaches and psychologists have observed a marked uptick in those seeking help for what’s commonly referred to as imposter syndrome, where individuals doubt their abilities, see themselves as unworthy of their professional achievements and can’t help but feel like a fraud at work.
As in the case of Brisk, overcoming imposter syndrome comes with gathering and acknowledging evidence that they are, in fact, capable and deserving of the job they’ve got. When coaching someone coping with imposter syndrome, Kelly Griffith, global director of coaching services at Ezra, a virtual professional coaching platform, asks the individual to share her recent feedback received on an assignment, for starters. Because high achievers are most likely to suffer from imposter syndrome, by and large the feedback is that they did a great job, she said, so she encourages the person to file this away as evidence that they’re as capable as others assume they are.
“Over time, as employees gather more and more evidence, their confidence grows and feelings of imposter syndrome start to fade,” she said.
During the pandemic, however, when people began working remotely and were more isolated from their colleagues, people were getting less face time and feedback. “The decline in input meant they had less evidence that they were doing a good job, even if they were excelling,” Griffith said.
The changing face of leadership has also led to a spike in imposter syndrome.
“As older workers leave the workforce and a more diverse set of talent — more women, more people of color — steps up to fill the gap, it’s likely we’ll continue to see high rates of imposter syndrome among leadership,” Griffith said. As that can lead to burnout and decreasing employee engagement, it is crucial leaders are equipped with the tools to overcome feelings of imposter syndrome, especially as businesses look to build and retain diversity in leadership.
Samantha Karlin, founder and CEO of Empower Global, a diversity and inclusion consulting and training service based in Washington, D.C., said she has met with scores of women coping with imposter syndrome — not a surprise in male-dominated professions.
“Because their workplace was designed by and for men, [it] often alienates womens’ ways of being and working,” she said. “It can impact whether they speak up in meetings, exercise their voices more generally, prevent them from asking for a promotion or a raise, negatively affect their mental health, and impact their retention at the company.”
The most insidious thing about imposter syndrome is that often women will hide that they experience it, she observed, which is why workplace inclusion efforts and women’s empowerment training are vital.
Niki Yarnot, a career coach with New York-based career services firm Wanderlust Careers, is not surprised to see that imposter syndrome has become epidemic among many high achievers.
“In our current social media-driven culture, it can be difficult to parse reality from carefully staged photos and moments,” she said. “The bar for achievement and success seems to move higher and higher all the time. Educational measures of success have become inflated. It’s no longer enough to be a straight-A student — one must also be in accelerated courses, volunteering, captain of a sports team, and a leading member of DECA to be considered top tier.”
Likewise, in the workplace, the competition for jobs and ever-changing standards in regard to background and education can breed feelings of insecurity, she added.
Firstly, Yarnot warns against comparing oneself to others. “Focus on your own abilities, not how they stack up to others,” she said. “When feelings of being an imposter arise, ask yourself: Is there a reality backing up these feelings? If the feedback from your boss and colleagues is positive, your clients are happy and you are meeting expectations, then it’s time to put that ‘I’m not good enough’ noise to bed.”
There is a role for bosses as well. Yarnot believes it is key for employers to provide regular feedback, including examples of an employee’s good work, as well as positive reinforcement so they feel confident and valued.
Likewise, Amar Vig, managing director at the U.K. mortgage brokerage London FS, believes there’s much business leaders can do to prevent imposter syndrome among staff. Among them, employers should:
- Promote affirmation and acknowledge achievements at work.
- Create an inclusive culture where people can speak up without worrying about the consequences.
- Encourage solutions for stress management, self-compassion and empathy. As Vig put it, “You may encourage a change away from the ‘all work, no play’ mentality among your staff and help the workplace become more humane.”
- Create psychological safety by having open dialogues about how self-doubt is a part of success. “This can assist to normalize the reality that worries arise while taking chances and inventing,” Vig said.
- Implement and advertise Employee Assistance Provider services and make it easy for staff members to access them. Such services might include career counseling, specialized workshops and out-placement assistance.
Adam Crossling, marketing manager at the U.K.-based IT support service Zenzero, adds that in addition to professional counseling, someone coping with imposter syndrome may want to take on a mentor who has been in a similar situation and can act as a sounding board.
Crossling also advises employees to keep track of tasks they performed well, so they can later reflect on them and realize they are not imposters after all.