In 1978, two Georgia State University psychologists found themselves surrounded by smart, successful women who shared a common experience: They thought of themselves as impostors who, through luck or error, had ended up in roles where their intelligence and skills were overestimated.
Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes were the first to label this the “impostor phenomenon.”
Now, research from MIT Sloan assistant professor suggests there might be an upside to these thoughts in the workplace. In her paper “The Impostor Phenomenon Revisited: Examining the Relationship Between Workplace Impostor Thoughts and Interpersonal Effectiveness at Work,” Tewfik shows that people with impostor thoughts also tend to be more interpersonally effective at work — a benefit that refutes the long-held belief that there is nothing good about thinking one is overestimated by colleagues.
“It’s a compensation story: If I think other people think I’m smarter [than I think I am], I might be worried that I’m not actually that smart, so I might turn my focus to something else — which is making other people think I’m great socially,” Tewfik said. “People pick up on what I’m doing and they say ‘Wow, she's a great person to work with, I really like interacting with her at work.’”
Here's a closer look at the research, and some takeaways for people with workplace impostor thoughts and the managers who oversee them.
Impostor syndrome vs. workplace impostor thoughts
Chances are, you’ve heard of the impostor phenomenon under another name: “impostor syndrome.” But “syndrome” implies something negative, or a permanent disease or mental disorder, Tewfik explained.
The phrase impostor phenomenon can be problematic too. While someone might define the impostor phenomenon as self-doubt, others might think it is lack of belonging, or fear of being found out. While these definitions can relate to impostor thoughts, they do not reflect the core of the phenomenon, and are all different things.
“These varied potential meanings are precisely why we have a poor understanding of what this phenomenon is all about,” Tewfik said.
Tewfik instead uses the term “workplace impostor thoughts,” which doesn’t suggest something as negative as a syndrome and specifically refers to the belief that a person is an impostor in their job, she said.
Competence and social skills
Tewfik tested her theories about workplace impostor thoughts across four studies. One assessed the frequency of impostor thoughts among employees at an investment advisory firm, and linked it to what their supervisors thought of their interpersonal skills. Another examined the bedside manner of physicians-in-training with more- or less-frequent impostor thoughts after patient interactions. And related third and fourth studies — both experiments — looked at how people handled a mock interview for a promotion.
What Tewfik learned from the studies was that workplace impostor thoughts prompted a person to compensate for the concern that they might not be as competent as other people believe them to be. This is done through an unconscious pivot to what she calls an “other-focused orientation.” This other-focused orientation directed to colleagues, supervisors, and patients can manifest in a variety of forms including:
- Verbally — Saying something like “I understand” when a coworker is explaining a problem to them.
- Paraverbally — Lowering one’s voice and speaking slowly, to display a receptive, considerate manner, such as a doctor talking with a patient.
- Nonverbally — Maintaining good eye contact, nodding, or displaying some other form of active listening.
When someone displays an other-focused orientation, others at work are likely to respond in a positive way. This is known as “perceived interpersonal effectiveness,” a subjective observation that captures how well a person interacts within their social environment.
Not only does other-focused orientation improve interpersonal interactions, it can also affect an organization’s bottom line. According to research Tewfik cites, workers with low interpersonal effectiveness can cost on average between $420,000 and $62.4 million annually for companies with 100 – 100,000 employees.
Tewfik did not find any competence-related downsides to having workplace impostor thoughts in her studies, but she did find that they hurt one’s self-esteem (self-esteem is an indicator of well-being).
“Worker well-being is still something managers need to care about,” she said. “Ultimately, we need to start to understand this phenomenon more holistically. We can't just say it's all bad, we can't just say it's all good.”
For managers, just because there’s a potential benefit to workplace impostor thoughts doesn’t mean they should encourage employees to have them. Likewise, employees shouldn’t be penalized for having these thoughts. Instead, think about what the organization can do better to support worker well-being.
For people with workplace impostor thoughts, Tewfik recommends they remind themselves that through an intrapersonal discomfort, they may actually develop an interpersonal comfort.
“It doesn't always feel great, but just because you're uncomfortable doesn't mean it's this terrible thing, that everything is bad, and you need to start to solve it,” Tewfik said. “These recommendations sit in the broader narrative of: Maybe we need to be OK with a little bit of discomfort.”