Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome affects 70% of adults at some point in their careers1.

Imposter syndrome was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. They claimed that women were uniquely affected by imposter syndrome, but later acknowledged that it is not limited to women. Clance created an imposter syndrome test.

Imposter syndrome typically affects people when they have worked hard to achieve a new role or responsibility. Even though other people tell them they are doing well, they are constantly in fear of being “found out” as not up to the task, or not deserving to be in the role. They feel as if they have been faking it and the more praise they receive, the less deserving they feel.

Until recently, it was thought that imposter syndrome was universally detrimental and something to be overcome. But a 2021 study2 by Wharton researcher, Basima Tewfik, found that while having imposter thoughts does elicit fear, it can also be a motivator, pushing people to achieve mastery. She also found that having imposter thoughts can improve interpersonal performance at work: helping people, cooperating, and encouraging others. Her theory is that when employees feel that their competence is lower than others think, they may be spurred to prove themselves on an interpersonal level. So, a little bit of imposter syndrome may not be a bad thing.

Imposter syndrome and perfectionism often go hand in hand. “Imposters” believe everything they do must be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help. According to Clance, perfectionism can lead an imposter either to procrastinate, putting off tasks in case they won't be able to complete them to the necessary high standards, or to over prepare, spending much more time than is necessary.

Prof David Clutterbuck suggests that a mentor, who suspects a mentee has unhealthy levels of imposter thoughts, can assist by helping them:

  • Name it. Describing what is happening as imposter syndrome helps to normalise it and make it less fearsome.
  • Not take themselves too seriously. It’s about achieving a balance between not taking any credit for your success and seeing yourself as more important than you really are
  • Explore who they compare themselves with and how. What self-doubts do they think that person might have?
  • See themselves as a work in progress and their job role as an ongoing experiment, in which getting some things wrong is an important part of the normal process. A great coaching question is “How many mistakes do you need to make each week to learn at the pace you need?”
  • Explore the impact of their negative self-beliefs on others. If, for example, they lead them to over manage their direct reports, what would be the impact on team performance of a more relaxed approach trusting both herself and her team?
  • Practise vulnerability -- for example, admitting what they don’t know, talking about what they have learned from their mistakes. Imposter syndrome pushes you to avoid vulnerability but having the courage to be more vulnerable gradually increases self-belief.
  • Put “expertise” into context. An expert is someone, whose great knowledge gets in the way of their learning. Instead of seeking to be an expert, it is better to be an enthusiastic learner.
  • Have conversations between their confident and self-doubting selves. Choosing which self to step into (even if it feels like faking it to go with the confident self) provides a sense of control and goes a long way towards making the confident self the default self.
  • Set positive (towards) goals for their behaviour and thinking rather than negative (avoidance) goals. Negative goals simply remind them of their perceived inadequacies.
  • Value their self-doubts as a stimulus for action – so, for example, preparing thoroughly for a presentation becomes less a matter of preventing any mistakes than of being the best they can.
  • See what you value in them, as a dispassionate external observer, who can provide a balanced perspective.

Do mentors suffer from Imposter Syndrome?

Of course!

It has such high incidence in the general community, there is no reason why mentors would escape imposter thinking. We find it is quite common for mentors to be filled with self-doubt about their ability to help a mentee, even when they receive a mentoring invitation directly from them.

The act of mentoring itself builds self-confidence. Many mentors discover how much they actually know and remember what they do well, following mentoring conversations. People who tend to imposter syndrome may make very good mentors, since they are likely to try really hard to succeed in the role. They may go the extra mile to educate themselves on mentoring skills, models and frameworks.

If you are a mentor and you think imposter syndrome is holding you back, you can find yourself a mentor and work through it with them, or use some of the tips above for yourself. The key is self-awareness. Remember, you are a role model for your mentee, so take care that you do not model unhealthy behaviours – or at least warn your mentee not to emulate your perfectionism or imposter thoughts.

1. Sakulku, J. (2011). The Impostor Phenomenon. The Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 75–97.


Further reading
Clance, PR and Ament, S (1978) ‘The impostor phenomenon among high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention’. Psychotherapy, Research and Practice, 15(3), pp. 241-7.

Langford, J and Clance, PR (1993) ‘The impostor phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment’, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. 30(3), pp. 495-501.

Pedler, M (2011) Leadership, risk and the imposter syndrome, Action Learning: Research and Practice, 8:2, 89-91