You’ve probably felt it before.

As a new hiree. In a challenging class. Or while making small talk with really, really smart people.

Many can relate to impostor syndrome — a psychological phenomenon in which a person feels that they are a fraud in a network of successful individuals, despite being well-experienced and qualified in the field.

UNLV Lee Business School assistant professor Richard Gardner researches socialization and onboarding experiences of newcomers. He recently co-published a study on the phenomenon with colleagues from Brigham Young University. Professor Gardner explains more.

There are a number of factors that stimulate impostor syndrome. What do you believe is the root cause of phenomenon?

Perhaps the biggest cause would be social comparison. “How do I stack up against my peers? What environment am I in? And is it a very competitive environment?”

It’s a pretty natural tendency to compare yourself to other people. It’s not everyone, but the overwhelming majority of people have felt this way at some point in their schooling or career.

We did two studies. The first was a qualitative study where we asked students in accounting – which is a very career-oriented program – to think back on their first year. The second involved surveys that tracked changing feelings of impostorism over time. 

The students were all very accomplished and high-achieving, so they demonstrated capability. But once they entered the accounting program, they immediately started comparing themselves to other high-achieving students within the program. We discovered that, because the bar was so much higher, they were starting to feel more inadequate.

University counselors deal with this in their profession all the time — students, particularly new students, get into a university and feel that they don’t belong, and these advisors often counsel students on ways to overcome this feeling. 

Your research found that a popular coping mechanism is to seek outside support rather than from within. Can you explain the reason behind this?

Previous research had already found that the more social support you receive, the less you feel like an impostor. However, our study found that the real deciding factor is the source of the social support.

Seeking support from peers from within the program tended to make the students feel more like an impostor. Imagine if I’m in a class and I ask a classmate for support and he provides me all the information needed. I may realize how little I know and feel even more “behind” in the class. 

Support from within may open up that vulnerability. However, reaching out to somebody outside of that student’s immediate social circle may give a more holistic view, decreasing the feelings of impostorism.

In our study, we tracked these students and their performance. We discovered that it wasn’t the low-performing students who were feeling like they were impostors — it was actually the students who were performing quite well that still experienced impostor syndrome. 

Can impostor syndrome, in some cases, help spur students to work harder and perform better?

We actually tried to determine whether there’s a curvilinear relationship between a healthy instance of impostorism and improved performance or work ethic. We couldn’t find that within our data, but I think it is an interesting concept. It’s my belief that people must find a way to balance remaining competitive and driven, but without having the negative psychological side effects of feeling like an impostor. 

A part of this has to do with understanding failure or setbacks. This may involve taking on a more learning goal orientation approach or what some of research calls a “growth mindset” — experiencing difficulty or failure, and coping with that in a more constructive way. 

What are some negative results from experiencing impostor syndrome?

Negative side effects include early exit from a career or job by a person who feels that he or she doesn't belong when, in reality, they’re actually just fine within that program. Other outcomes can be stress and burnout.

Certainly, there are some instances where people don’t fit in an organization or in a job role. Perhaps their values are different from what they initially thought the company espoused, and that’s totally fine!      

However, our study found that, more often, a person mis-assesses their own performance. We don’t want people to leave because they don’t feel like they make the cut, when in fact they are extremely capable.

What’s the difference between people who experience impostor syndrome and actual impostors?

Anecdotally, it simply depends on where you’re doing your social comparisons. That’s the big challenge — when we look at somebody else, we’re typically comparing their best with our worst. 

That’s the thing about impostors: they’re biased. This is called attribution bias — that if I’m successful, it’s because I’m really good. If I do something badly, it’s because of some external influence. We call this fundamental attribution error. 

However, people who experience impostor syndrome reverse this. If they’re successful, it’s due to chance, luck, or some external influence. But if they fail or perform poorly, they attribute it to their own deficiencies.

How can organizations combat impostor syndrome, and what should people with feelings of impostor syndrome do?

One good exercise is to be okay with sharing struggles or failures with each other. So, for example, if you’re in a university setting taking in new students who are pretty uncertain about their path, have somebody else share with them that they had those same experiences too.

Alternatively, we found that some people in our study tried “cognitively escaping,” and were able to re-effectively re-engage themselves as a student through a variety of activities, such as intramural sports and joining social groups. 

Another option is adjusting your social comparison perspective. For example, one student felt like she was an impostor in her accounting program. However, once she accepted an internship outside of the program and was surrounded by new individuals, she found that she was very capable in the field. That’s a helpful tool to imagine who you can compare yourself to.

A great strategy that I used to teach as part of my leadership class was to have my students do a failing assignment. So, they actually had to go out and try something that they would likely fail at doing — with the goal being for them to learn about themselves and how they deal with those setbacks. And what’s interesting is that when students see other students’ failures, I think it helps them to calibrate themselves. It’s the mindset, “We’re all in this together. We’re struggling together and this is pretty normal to do.”

ABOUT THE STUDY

“I must have slipped through the cracks somehow”: An examination of coping with perceived impostorism and the role of social support by UNLV professor Richard Gardner and BYU researchers Jeff Bednar, Bryan Stewart, and James Oldroyd was published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.

SEE ORIGINAL STUDY