Dr Laura Kilby sheds light on imposter syndrome

Dr Laura Kilby (reader in social psychology) was recently interviewed on Salford City Radio, discussing the psychology of imposter syndrome. Laura has now kindly offered to answer a few questions on the subject:

What is imposter syndrome?

There are three main components to imposter syndrome (IS). Firstly, it involves a deeply held belief that other people have an inflated perception of our abilities. Secondly, there is a constant fear that our true abilities will be found out. Lastly, there is a persistent tendency to attribute successes to external factors such as luck, or to imagine that success was only as a result of disproportionate effort. It is widely accepted that the proximal cause of IS is an inability to accurately self-assess performance, and it tends to go hand in hand with diminished self-confidence and a lack of self-efficacy.

It has been associated with long-term stress and anxiety, and a higher risk of burnout. Relatedly, it often leads people to engage in maladaptive perfectionistic behaviours, such as overpreparing, overthinking, and overestimating the significance of mistakes. This creates a negative cycle whereby people work even harder and become ever more conscientious to try and mask or make up for what is perceived as fraudulent success. Ironically, this continued hard work can often lead to yet more professional achievements which in turn amplifies feelings of fraudulence.

How prevalent has it become in today’s society?

We know that both women and men can experience it. However, it tends to disproportionately affect women, and it tends to be more apparent in men or women who are working in professions that are dominated by members of the opposite sex. What this suggests is there is an increasing likelihood of experiencing IS amongst people who are under-represented in their given professional setting.

IS has been documented in many workplace contexts, including healthcare settings, financial environments and commercial workplaces. However, the majority of research has been in educational settings.  Numerous studies have examined it amongst academic staff, and it is increasingly researched amongst differing student groups. A recent paper has argued that imposter syndrome may at least partly explain the higher drop-out rates of women and members of racial, ethnic and religious minority groups from the science, technology, engineering, and maths pipeline.

Dr Laura Kilby

What motivated you to become involved in the study of imposter syndrome?

I began noticing how often early-career academics, usually women, were mentioning feelings of imposterism on their social media accounts and I decided to try and speak to these concerns in a talk I gave at the British Psychological Society (BPS) Postgraduate conference, which was held last summer here at Hallam. I was then invited to write a more developed piece for The Psychologist magazine which was published at the start of the year, and quite frankly I was astonished at the response.

I still receive messages from people who have come across the article. I have had emails from seasoned academics, Phd students, professional psychologists working in counselling and clinical roles, Masters students and retired colleagues. What has really struck is the paralysis that so many of these undoubtedly successful individuals felt about openly acknowledging these feelings.  It is as if the act of saying ‘I experience this’ might be taken as proof that they are an imposter, and then the whole house of cards will fall down on them.  This of course perpetuates the negative cycle which is why I think we need to do work within our organisations to talk much more openly and to better understand and tackle imposter syndrome amongst our various student and staff groups.

How can a person overcome imposter syndrome?

There are some steps that people can take to help tackle imposter syndrome:

  • Devise ways to measure your achievement. Create a set of criteria or measures linked to your role that you can use to better self-assess your performance. For example, it might take the form of a weekly checks and balances activity that you do at the end of the week to remind yourself just how much you have achieved.
  • We all need feedback.  Performance appraisals are important and can be part of the solution, but a more regular feedback loop can help us to sense check our performance. Seek out objective validation from peers and learn to accept feedback as it is given.
  • Mentoring can be an important mechanism for creating a safe space where people can examine any disconnect between their objective performance and their self-assessment. Addressing feelings of imposterism and breaking the maladaptive behaviours it leads to can be absolutely key for supporting career progression and improving wellbeing at work.
  • Mark out time for reflection and reappraisal. Make sure you are setting realistic goals and think through your relationship with failures or mistakes. Mistakes, and failures can be the bedrock of our future successes, whereas fear of failure undermines creativity and curiosity which are vital tools for success.​​​​​​​
  • As an organisation we also need to avoid individualising the experience. These feelings are indelibly bound up with the routine demands, challenges and culture of the workplace. We can help tackle the challenges of imposterism by making this much more visible and normalising the conversation for staff and for students.

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