People tend to think that impostor syndrome is uniformly harmful. Certainly the belief that you’re not as competent as others think you are can make you anxious and lower your self-esteem. But there’s an upside too. Professor Tewfik’s research shows that experiencing this phenomenon can make you more adept at relationships, which is a key ingredient in career success.
In one study, doctors in training who had more frequent impostor thoughts were significantly better at handling sensitive interactions with patients, which led those patients to give them higher interpersonal skill ratings.
In another study, job candidates primed to have more impostor thoughts asked more questions during informal pre-interview chats and as a result were viewed by hiring managers as having better people skills.
In addition, impostor thoughts didn’t seem to hurt performance: doctors who had more of them were just as likely as other doctors to give correct diagnoses, and job candidates who had more of them were just as likely to be invited for an interview after their chats with hiring managers.
Impostor syndrome is not a real syndrome or pathology. Interestingly, to date there’s no empirical quantitative evidence that impostor thoughts degrade performance.
Yet this notion persists. Psychologists often point to something called the Yerkes-Dodson stress performance curve, which shows that up to a point, a few nerves actually improve performance. It may be that having the right amount of impostor thoughts can provide just enough motivation to bring out your best work.
How do you determine whether someone has impostor syndrome and to what extent? What researchers have been studying and calling impostor syndrome or impostor phenomenon over the past few decades was indistinguishable from fear. And if fear is what we’ve been studying, it’s no wonder we think that experiencing it is all bad news. These thoughts tend to peak when you’re facing a new challenge, starting a new job, or encountering new tasks after a promotion.
Professor Tewfik also asked herself: “Do women and people of colour have impostor thoughts more frequently?”
In all her studies, and this has been backed up by other researchers, she doesn’t find significant differences. That is, white men seem to experience just as many impostor thoughts as women and ethnic minorities do. When people point to the impostor phenomenon in underrepresented groups, they appear to be conflating it with something more insidious: a lack of belonging.
A true impostor thought is “My colleagues think I’m smarter than I am.” It’s not “I think other people question whether I belong here or think I’m not smart enough.” Essentially, impostor thoughts make you more attuned to other people’s perceptions and feelings, which makes you more likeable.
In fact, if managers hear an employee from a minority group expressing what sounds like impostor thoughts, they might want to check to see if there is an inclusion problem. Maybe the minority employee is operating in a hostile, biased, work environment.
To establish whether your impostor thoughts eventually fade away and with them, the benefits they provide, will require more research, but the author suspects that your impostor thoughts and the resulting benefits will never diminish entirely.
Even extremely successful people like Albert Einstein, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and the writer Maya Angelou publicly admitted to having impostor thoughts from time to time so there will always be powerful environmental triggers that bring them on.
Adapted by “Impostor Syndrome Has Its Advantages: Professor Tewfik, DEFEND YOUR RESEARCH” from Harvard Business Review 202205