Does That Scary Feeling That Others Overestimate Your Abilities Have an Upside?

Worrying that you aren’t really as talented, capable or prepared as other people think you are is not a feeling we typically embrace. That sense of being an “imposter” or “fraud,” despite your reputation for strong results, can make you feel anxious and afraid, and lower self-esteem. But research out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that the painful experience we call Imposter Syndrome or Imposter Phenomenon can actually have some advantages.

MIT Sloan School of Management Assistant Professor of Work and Organization Studies, Basima Tewfik, Ph.D., has found that people who worry they may not be as competent as colleagues believe them to be tend to develop more “other oriented” skills that can improve relationships and career success. In one study, doctors with more imposter thoughts were better at handling sensitive interactions with patients. In another study with job candidates, those with more imposter thoughts were actually rated as having better people skills.

You can explore this complex topic at the next WFF Exchange Network, Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, October 20, Noon-1 p.m. CT featuring an Executive Q&A with Vice President of Sales, Keurig Dr. Pepper, Inc., Patricia Riddle. WFF’s monthly Exchange Networks connect you with inspiring peers and role models in powerful virtual events that include live moderated Q&A with a top industry leader on Zoom followed by focused networking in small breakout groups hosted via Mixtoz. You can REGISTER now for this free event.

A more balanced view
One of the reasons Tewfik wanted to explore the imposter experience further was to de-stigmatize it and help lessen the anxiety often associated with these feelings. She wants people to understand three things: it’s okay to have imposter thoughts sometimes, it’s not indicative of a pathology and it’s incredibly common.
“A frequently cited statistic suggests that nearly 70% of people have entertained imposter thoughts at least at one point in their careers,” Tewfik shared in an interview with Harvard Business Review. “These thoughts tend to come to a peak when you’re facing a new challenge, starting a new job, or encountering new tasks after a promotion.”
Look for the silver lining
In addition to the potential for such feelings of uncertainty to help people build empathy, and to be seen as more adept at relationships and more likeable, there is also no empirical evidence that imposter thoughts degrade performance, according to Tewfik. While there is no hard and fast answer, she posits that perhaps the same way that a little bit of nervousness has been shown to improve performance (to a point), perhaps a little bit of self-doubt provides the motivation to help you create your best work.
In her research with 1,000 people, Tewfik found that those who were asked to reflect on a time when they had imposter thoughts asked more questions and engaged with others more following their research interview than those in the control group. She doesn’t advise actively cultivating imposter thoughts, but rather suggests that you do not need to be crippled by them.
“I hope the takeaway from this research is that when you do find yourself having these thoughts – as you may from time to time – you shouldn’t compound the stress that comes with them by also thinking that they’re necessarily going to cause you to do poorly at work,” she said.
Special concerns for underrepresented people
Tewfik and other researchers have not found significant differences in the presence of imposter thoughts among women and people of color as compared with white men. Still, she cautions that experiences and feelings that might first be attributed to imposter thoughts could actually be indicators of a lack of inclusion for underrepresented people.
An imposter thought revolves around a belief that other people think you are smarter, more capable and more successful than you believe you are. That’s very different from worrying that other people don’t think you belong or are not qualified or smart enough. “If managers hear an employee from a minority group expressing what sounds like imposter thoughts they might want to check to see if there is an inclusion problem,” Tewfik advises.

Dive deeper to learn more
It can help a little to know that even Albert Einstein worried he wasn’t quite as capable as people thought. But what helps even more is digging into the complexities of imposter thoughts with candid role models and with peers who share similar goals for advancement and may experience many of the same professional challenges that you do. You can find that camaraderie at the next WFF Exchange Network with colleagues committed to learning, networking and growing together. Just REGISTER here.

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