Impostor syndrome—that feeling that you’re not as smart as others believe you are–may be getting a bad rap.
First identified by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Clance in 1971 as the impostor phenomenon, the term impostor syndrome has been been used more frequently since 2015 in both research papers and Google searches, with dozens of articles either describing the phenomenon’s negative effects on job performance and mental health or offering practical guides on how to overcome it.
Often associated with negative feelings like fear and self-doubt, impostor syndrome is almost universally understood as detrimental to both our self esteem and our performance. Luminaries including former first lady Michelle Obama, Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, and actress Lupita N’yongo have all shared their struggles with it.
Now, a new study might indicate that it’s time to reframe the concept altogether. Basima Tewfik, assistant professor at MIT Sloan School of Business, studied the phenomenon by separating impostor thoughts—the feeling that other people overestimate your intelligence—from the negative feelings they often trigger. In doing so, she reintroduces the phenomenon as one that may have surprising upsides in the workplace.
In a paper published in The Academy of Management Journal this year, Tewfik describes findings from four experiments that follow professionals in the workplace. She found that those who experience impostor thoughts become more interpersonally effective at work because the thoughts cause them to focus more on others. At the same time, their objective job performance was not negatively impacted.
We reached out to Tewfik to discuss her findings on impostor thoughts and get recommendations for individuals who may be experiencing them. Here are excerpts, edited for space and clarity:
Can you give some concrete examples of how these interpersonal upsides might play out for someone experiencing impostor thoughts?
When I studied physicians, those with more frequent impostor thoughts showed a lot of nodding, better eye contact, and hand gestures. That is, they adopted a more other-focused orientation. As a result, patients tended to think that these physicians had better interpersonal skills—that they were better listeners, asked better questions, and were more empathetic. In another study, people who were randomly induced to have more of these thoughts tended to ask more questions in an interview context, leading to higher ratings of interpersonal effectiveness from hiring managers. These studies get to the core finding of the research: You become other-focused when you experience Impostor thoughts, which results in higher interpersonal effectiveness ratings.
What are the takeaways for people who may be experiencing impostor thoughts?
First, let’s talk about what is not the takeaway. I don't want people to think that, because impostor thoughts can have this interpersonal upside, and it's not clear that it actually affects our performance negatively, that we shouldn't worry about people having impostor thoughts—or, even go so far as to encourage impostor thoughts in others because it may come with this interpersonal upside. There are many other, better ways to help people become more interpersonally effective.
Second, I hope that my work will help people not be so hard on themselves when they have impostor thoughts. Even though these thoughts might come with some interpersonal discomfort—like lowered self-esteem—remember that they may also come with interpersonal benefits. There may actually be a silver lining here, and you don’t have to put so much pressure on yourself to get rid of these thoughts.
Finally, for managers, this research can help reframe conversations around impostor thoughts to be more holistic. If we care about interpersonal outcomes, competence-related outcomes, and well-being outcomes, how do we start to identify the situations in which you're going to have a net-positive outcome from impostor thoughts and the situations in which you're not? Also, as managers, we can help people manage their thoughts by offering a different starting point to the conversation–one that highlights that it can have an interpersonal upside, which may change how employees think about these thoughts in the first place.
In your paper, you don’t find a significant difference in outcomes based on gender, but we often talk about impostor thoughts in a way that is gendered and in the context of race. What are the implications for DEI practitioners and workplace leaders?
One of the reasons that the phenomenon is gendered, or that we think it's gendered, is because the first original study focused only on women. Since then, it's been found that this phenomenon is prevalent across different genders, races, and occupational categories.
Another reason we may continue to perceive it as gendered or as a DEI topic is because we tend to conflate it with a sense of belonging. When you hear someone talk about it, they might say, ‘Yeah, I think other people are overestimating me, I don't feel like I belong, and I have a fear that other people are going to find that I'm not supposed to be here.’ When you say all those phrases together, it’s easy to not realize that they’re actually talking about and feeling three different things: ‘I'm feeling a lack of belonging,’ ‘I'm feeling fear,’ and ‘I'm thinking that other people overestimate me.’
One of the goals of this work was to start being more precise with what we are talking about here, so that we can have a cleaner discussion about how impostor thoughts relate to diversity, and potentially how people of different genders and races may respond to these thoughts differently, given that there aren’t differences in prevalence.
If we continue to think that impostor thoughts are gendered or are only experienced by minority groups, I worry that we will essentially put the onus on them to deal with it. When in reality, the reason that you're experiencing impostor thoughts is probably a product of your environment. The reality is that almost everybody experiences impostor thoughts.