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The meaning of Impostor Syndrome

You’ve just accepted your new job, and you can’t believe they hired you. You can’t do this job, and they know it. Welcome to Impostor Syndrome.

There are major psychological forces at work in the way that people value their own skills. These are sometimes subtle, but powerful in how they alter how we perceive the reality of our skills and accomplishments. Not only do they change our own views, however, they can be adopted by other people over time and do irreparable damage to companies and careers.

In this post I will give an overview of two related effects, how they express themselves and the potential dangers they pose to both companies and people’s careers.

The first effect is the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect. It simply states that people are terrible at judging how well they will perform at any given task. People with low competence are also not very competent at seeing the outcomes of their actions and ways in which their performance could be improved. People with higher competences imagine all sorts of ways in which their skills are subpar or could be improved.

As a result you have people with very poor skills who claim that they are actually good at the job, using a variety of tactics to maintain forward momentum in their career, and high-performance team members who will understate their efforts and be substantially more quiet. That is, until they leave the company for some reason and you discover for the first time how many processes they kept running single-handedly.

Second is the aforementioned Impostor Syndrome. When you suffer from this effect you will have difficulty taking ownership of your own accomplishments, and rather try to find external causes for your success. If you’ve ever thought one (or all) of the following things, you will have experienced that feeling:

  • It was a miracle I got the job, considering I bluffed my way through the job interview
  • I may have gotten a straight 10/10 performance review, but I know I messed it all up. How did that happen?
  • That we pulled off the job in time had nothing to do with me, it was pure luck!
  • I know people keep complimenting me, but what I do is not very special, anyone can do it.
  • This is it. They expect me to present my work and they will find out that I know nothing – that I am a fraud.

Neither of these two effects are mental disorders – if you have this there is nothing wrong with you. Most people in life will suffer from either or both of these, and it’s part of our Human nature. When talking about these two effects and their influences they can have on you, your career and your company, I will refer to the combination as the Impostor Syndrome, since the two are closely related.

Imagine that the level of competence of a person is set into a graph with their accuracy at judging their own competence. It would look something like this:

What you see here is that people with very high competence misjudge their skill to be higher than it is, while people who have high levels of competence misjudge it to be lower. Externalizing this means that people who brag about their skills are usually not nearly as competent as they would lead you to believe, while people with unique and valuable skills often downplay or ignore their abilities.

The dangers of Impostor Syndrome for a business

In a job hunt, this means that people with high competence are harder to find because they neglect mentioning their unique abilities, or are even not consciously aware that they have them! While spotting the braggart at a job interview is considerably easier, they would have more chance to be hired than the high-potential candidate. Balancing out the two means that in most situations people would then look to the middle and select the candidate with sufficient but moderate skill who is most adept at showcasing their abilities.

The first danger is then that a lot of recruiters neglect or do not recognize highly valued applicants and stay at the safe middle ground. This makes sense because it would be a risk to go for a higher-potential candidate if they do not represent themselves well. They can also be misinterpreted as candidates who are timid or introvert, when they are trying to be humble. This robs competent candidates of their opportunities for challenges and growth, but also denies companies the skills these people could have brought in, or even future management material.

The second danger to be aware of is that when people with inflated sense of self-competence are hired into companies, they might be there to stay. Deflecting blame, networking and having others pick up the slack for them are just a few tools that are used by people to maintain a position they do not meet the expectations of. In the worst case scenario such a person might gain promotions based on the skills of (a quiet number of) others until a situation of “promotion to incompetence” occurs.

The irony of the matter is that at this stage such a person would believe they can keep building on their existing schemes to keep themselves moving forward, and would not recognize the point at which this plan will fail – the exact opposite of the impostor effect. When such a person leaves the company, the potential damage to the company’s reputation for employing a person for so long without recognizing their true competence leads them to dismiss that person quietly,  and sometimes with a firm golden handshake.

This has been costly for the company: others who could have performed better missed their opportunity, while stress and failure plagues the promotion chain of the recently dismissed manager. Now it becomes a race to fill the position with someone more competent, meanwhile leaving other people in the company feel undervalued and neglected.

The dangers for careers and job seekers

When you don’t accurately reflect your skills, or ignore unique capabilities you possess, your troubles don’t end at the recruitment process. When it comes to planning your career you want to have an accurate gauge of what jobs would suit you, and it helps to imagine what high-level jobs you would eventually want to transfer in to. If you can’t imagine what kinds of jobs you can do with appropriate training and development, you will definitely low-ball your career expectations.

Additionally, when you do land a job your performance reviews are likely to be inaccurate to your actual accomplishments. You will try to downplay the quality of your work, forget to mention key projects you have been participating in, and be humble in your advancement expectations. All of these are missed opportunities to improve your resume, improve your company benefits or salary or get promoted to more challenging, exciting functions.

When you suffer from Impostor Syndrome you are less quick to ask for a raise, even when your performance was great and other people around you do receive one. You are also more likely, in the event of a promotion, to accept an increase in responsibilities with less to no improvement in wage or benefits. And this can have far-reaching long term consequences for your career, because a low wage history can become a low wage expectation.

When looking for new opportunities in your industry, knowing your own value is of prime importance. At a certain level of your career, you expect your job to be challenging, exciting and something you can express your expertise in. But if you have undervalued yourself for long enough, you will find it very difficult to accurately express you skill levels, market your accomplishments and negotiate for the rewards that are appropriate for your function.

The feelings of anxiety that come with feeling less qualified for your job can also generate fear of failure, where you work harder and volunteer for all manner of side projects just to prove your usefulness. Meanwhile, receiving praise for your work or involvement feels hollow and fake, as you mentally prepare for evidence appearing that your skills are, in fact, not unique and high enough and you should be replaced by someone more competent.

In the long term, these feelings of self-depreciating can lead to far more serious problems, including feelings of inferiority, depression or even a crisis of identity.

Overcoming the Impostor Syndrome

The next post in this series will be about the ways in which you can recognize and prevent suffering from these feelings of inadequacy, and how you can value your abilities and skills in a more objective fashion. This is a core skill to have in order to advance your career from task-based to competency-based. Additionally, I will create a separate post on how you can find and fine tune your salary expectations to combat the negative effects on your job rewards.


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