Self-doubt is something everyone – no matter how successful – faces at least once during their life. But what happens when this self-doubt begins to have a detrimental effect on our professional lives? Even those at the top of their game sometimes feel as if they don’t belong there, as if their accomplishments are a fraud and they are some kind of imposter. When these self-critical feelings become overwhelming the result is something that has been dubbed ‘imposter syndrome.’ Research has found that as many as 70% of people experience imposter syndrome – a significant percentage of the population. In this blog we will be looking at the effect imposter syndrome might be having on members of your organisation and how a mentoring programme may be able to help.
The term ‘imposter syndrome’ comes from a 1987 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes called ‘The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.’ Clance and Imes described it as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women” (Clance & Imes). Evidently from its conception the idea was closely associated with women. This connection continues to persist today, with imposter syndrome being viewed as an overwhelmingly female issue.
Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey take issue with the unnuanced association of imposter syndrome with womanhood in their 2021 article ‘Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome.’ They argue that:
“The impact of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases was categorically absent when the concept of imposter syndrome was developed. Many groups were excluded from the study, namely women of color and people of various income levels, genders, and professional backgrounds. Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational on how it manifests in both women of color and white women.”
The article comes to the conclusion that imposter syndrome pathologises natural feelings of inadequacy evoked in women – especially women of colour – by systems in which they are not valued or included.
Mentoring can be an effective route to encourage change within both organisations as a whole and their members’ confidence levels.
In their article ‘Mentoring Someone with Imposter Syndrome’ W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith outline the most effective ways to mentor someone suffering with imposter syndrome. Most of their suggestions include bolstering the mentee’s confidence. As with many things, in order to get over imposter syndrome you must first become aware of the fact that you are struggling with it. Being in a mentoring relationship can be hugely beneficial in this respect as, as Johnson and Smith point out, the mentor can call attention to the unfounded nature of the mentees self-doubts.
The article also acknowledges the difference between straightforward imposter syndrome stemming from lack of self-esteem and the more concrete feelings of being an imposter faced by women and people of colour in professional environments. An authoritative and understanding mentor that recognises and validates what their mentee is going through can provide a safe space in which they can work through these frustrations, as well as providing expertise and affirmations to guide them through. And this process also goes both ways. Not only can a mentor provide their mentee with their experience and knowledge but their mentee can educate them on the challenges that their colleagues face and the best ways in which they can help them to navigate them.
With SUMAC’s intuitive and customisable interface starting a mentoring programme in your organisation is easier than ever before. Book a free demo today to find out more about our expert-led service.
Sakulku, J. (2011). The Impostor Phenomenon. The Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 75–97. https://doi.org/10.14456/ijbs.2011.6
Burey, Jodie-Ann and Ruchika Tulshyan. (2021). ‘Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome’ https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome
Johnson, W. Brad and David G. Smith. (2019) ‘Mentoring Someone with Imposter Syndrome’ https://hbr.org/2019/02/mentoring-someone-with-imposter-syndrome
Abrams, Abigail. (2018). ‘Yes, Imposter Syndrome is Real. Here’s How to Deal With It’ https://time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome/