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Shame, fear and guilt – how managers tackle the ‘imposter phenomenon’ at work

Do you ever feel like you aren’t good enough for the job you have, and any success you experience is due to luck? Does this affect your work performance or have long-term consequences for your career? If so, you may be experiencing ‘the impostor phenomenon’, according to new research from Professors Helena Gonzalez-Gomez, NEOMA Business School, and Sarah Hudson, Rennes School of Business.

“The imposter phenomenon (IP) is the feeling that one’s success is due to unrelated factors, rather than one’s competence and qualifications,” says Professor Gonzalez-Gomez.

But what implications does this actually have on individuals’ careers? Using four studies with different methodologies and a total of 648 employees in US and Europe, the researchers investigated the effects of IP on performance and career outcomes.

According to the researchers, because IP is linked to a fear of being exposed as a fraud, IP in the workplace can influence outcomes such as employee commitment, stress, coping, or job satisfaction directly.

“Our findings reveal that in both simulated and recalled work situations, impostors are likely to feel shame, particularly when they attribute failure to themselves, as well having a negative effect on creativity,” says Professor Gonzalez-Gomez.

The researchers also found that IP is also related to the likelihood of an employee finding a job elsewhere, and also links to lower career success in terms of number of positive appraisals and promotions over one’s career.

Ultimately, this research can be used for organisations and managers wishing to develop the talent of individuals with the IP.

For example, because impostors believe they are failing at work, managerial feedback that avoids direct attributions of personal failure and rather focuses on how to improve performance in a more neutral manner is likely to increase creativity in individuals with IP.

The researchers also explain that because those who feel like impostors tend to underestimate their abilities, managers could also use appraisal and promotion tools that are more strongly weighted towards externally assessed performance, rather than towards self-assessment. These tools could be a useful for enabling more successful career advancement for individuals with IP.

This research is published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour.

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