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Impostor Syndrome and Its Surprising Upside

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Basima Tewfik (Class of 1943 Career Development Professor; Assistant Professor of Work and Organization Studies) examines the psychology of the social self at work. Already, her work is changing the conversation around common workplace assumptions. In “The Impostor Phenomenon Revisited: Examining the Relationship Between Workplace Impostor Thoughts and Interpersonal Effectiveness at Work,” Tewfik addresses what is popularly known as “impostor syndrome,” which she instead calls “workplace impostor thoughts,” and shows that it may have a surprising interpersonal benefit.

Tewfik defines these impostor thoughts as the belief that others overestimate one’s competence. For example, those who harbor such thoughts think to themselves, “I think other people think I’m smarter than I think I am.” Historically, these thoughts are correlated with negative outcomes like decreased self-esteem and stress. But Tewfik theorized and found that employees with more frequent workplace impostor thoughts may also be seen as more interpersonally effective at work and no less competent than those with fewer of such thoughts.

She tested her theory across four studies that featured survey, video, and pre-registered experimental data. In the first study, more than 150 employees at an investment advisory firm self-reported how frequently they had experienced workplace impostor thoughts. After matching these employees with supervisor ratings, Tewfik found that those with more frequent impostor thoughts scored higher on interpersonal effectiveness. In a second study, she examined more than 70 physicians in training. Those with more frequent workplace impostor thoughts physically adopted a more other-focused orientation (i.e., demonstrating focus on others via eye contact, gestures, etc.) in their patient interactions. As a result, patients rated them more highly with regard to interpersonal dynamics. Impostor thoughts did not negatively affect doctors making the right diagnosis.

These two studies established a positive correlation between impostor thoughts and interpersonal evaluations. In the following two studies, Tewfik aimed to establish causation: If you cause someone to have impostor thoughts, does it lead to a greater other-focused orientation, which can explain higher interpersonal effectiveness ratings? Indeed, she found this to be the case when randomly assigning employees to a control condition or an impostor thoughts condition. Tewfik asked the latter participants to recall a time when they had impostor thoughts at work. She then assessed their other-focused orientation in a pre-interview and found that it was higher than those in the control condition. As a result, interviewers perceived the impostor thought employees to be higher in interpersonal effectiveness.

In short, Tewfik found that people with impostor thoughts seemed to turn to another domain—social interaction and relationships—to compensate for their perceived deficit in competence, which, ironically, produces an interpersonal upside without seemingly impacting performance. Importantly, however, although she did not find detriments with regard to performance, she cautions from concluding that impostor thoughts may be all upside: “We need to better develop a holistic picture of the phenomenon, one that simultaneously considers competence-related, interpersonal, and well-being outcomes.”

In 2019 and 2021, Tewfik was a winner of the MIT Junior Faculty Research Assistance Program (JFRAP) award, which champions new faculty and incorporates their creative research approaches into the MIT Sloan community. In addition to impostor thoughts, her research includes “request declining”: how to say no to work in such a way as to preserve one’s professional relationships and reputation.

More broadly, her research seeks to shape new conversations that inspire academics and workplace practitioners to rethink workplace dynamics for the better.