Imposter syndrome in the workplace

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome through DEI

As imposter syndrome is becoming a more widely recognized inhibitor in the workplace, we have taken a look at the theory behind and causes, as well as discuss ideas on overcoming the issue through valuable DEI initiatives. Not only can DEI initiatives help alleviate the issue for individuals within the workplace, but they also continue to ensure that businesses are always creating diverse and inclusive organisations wherever possible. We also spoke to Francesca Profeta, Research Analyst at Staffing Industry Analysts, who discussed her own research on Imposter Syndrome within the recruitment industry.

Imposter syndrome permeates the workplace

66% of Britons admit they have difficulty accepting praise from others and women, especially women of colour, are more likely to experience it. Interestingly, women are significantly more likely (72%) to have trouble accepting compliments, compared to men (59%), according to YouGov data. Perfectionism runs rife amongst women, with 62% admitting they criticize themselves more than others will.

Translating this to a workplace setting, a recent KMPG study highlighted that 75% of female professionals across industries have experienced imposter syndrome in their career, despite their qualifications or achievements.

What is the theory behind imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is best described as consistent self-doubt, even in areas where you may excel beyond expectations, and an inability to believe your success is deserved. For most, it is a continuous struggle to accept your worth, and not attribute success to external factors.

The term itself was coined by two psychologists, Drs. Clance and Imes, after counselling accomplished professionals who suffered severe concern of being exposed as a fraud. It may manifest as negative self-talk, a lack of belief in your own abilities and/or a constant striving for perfection. Some may fear challenging themselves or seek constant approval as they lack faith in their abilities, whilst others may seek perfection, finding that nothing they do is “enough.”

Contributions to imposter feelings

Corporate culture can exacerbate imposter syndrome in women. Women are not simply born believing their achievements are fraudulent, and it is often the lack of representation at all levels of company hierarchy that prompts the feeling of “I don’t belong.” The pools of self-doubt are the result of a trickle from the top down. Albeit businesses are shifting focus to address representation in their workforce.

In the US, of 423 organizations surveyed by McKinsey and for The Women in the Workplace report, 70% noted that diversity was a critical issue to their business. Unfortunately, commitments to diversify can often be performative. A cross-industry PWC study of global DEI programs showed that 80% of respondents indicated their organizations have not yet adopted any such initiatives, with many unaware of the efforts even when they do exist. The effects of such are clear to see from an inequality perspective, as only 72 women of every 100 men are elevated to management.

Considering the staffing industry in isolation, SIA report that women comprise 66% of staffing’s internal workforce, with 53% of small agencies reporting their CEO and owners’ roles are secured by women, compared to just 18% at large firms. Despite covering over half of the staffing industry workforce, women continue to be severely underrepresented at the senior leadership level; 30% of UK recruitment firms have less than 5% female leaders at board level, and another 30% have only 21% female leaders on average, according to Women in Recruitment, an APSCo initiative.

At Skills Alliance however, we have continued with our efforts to increase diversity with a 60% increase in female management and leaders in the last 24 months and a 73% increase in female employees overall. We attend, sponsor, and participate in multiple industry forums, roundtables and conferences throughout the year, including Feather in Her Cap — an award ceremony aimed at recognising outstanding female leaders.

Francesca Profeta also touches on the importance of diversity when discussing her own research with SIA on imposter syndrome in the staffing industry and its impact on women in particular. She notes “we underestimate the added pressure of representing a particular group, and how critical support and representation is from peers.” Francesca draws on her own experience with imposter syndrome, admitting that she always felt her career progression was due to external factors, such as having a good manager and support system. For Francesca, a main contributor to this internal dialogue was that she didn’t have a degree, exacerbating her fear of not being good enough, and that she was just “fortunate”. She describes her fear of being the “weakest link” as a stumbling block, and that even at this stage in her career, she is learning to silence that inner voice.

As such, seeing a lack of diversity in the field, especially in senior positions, can contribute to imposter syndrome. Being the “only or first person in the room” can be isolating, Francesca states, and impacts many areas including, women in leadership, equal pay, and sector representation.

As such, Francesca raises a pertinent point, that we must acknowledge how imposter syndrome is often racialized and directly linked to feelings of increased anxiety. Imposter feelings can be more prevalent in Black and Latina women in professional environments without equitable representation. A 2020 report of Corporate America, conducted by Leanin.Org and McKinsey & Company, showed that white women make up 29% of entry level positions, while women of colour make up just 19%. The disparity becomes unmistakable as we analyze progression opportunities, with white women representing 21% of C-Suite leaders whilst women of colour represent just 5%.

This is not for lack of ambition, as research shows female leaders are just as likely as men to seek promotion and aspire for seniority. However, in some companies they can experience microaggressions that contribute to the feeling of imposter syndrome to make them feel like it will be harder for them to advance. For example, women are more likely than men to have colleagues imply they aren’t qualified for their jobs or be mistaken for a junior member of staff. In addition, women are more likely to be considered too “emotional” or “soft” for senior leadership. Racist and sexist stereotypes can cause marginalized people to doubt themselves. According to McKinsey & Company, a significant portion of women feel their gender and race have played a role in being denied promotions. Thus, it is not hard to imagine why imposter syndrome is rife amongst female professionals.

Moving forward: overcoming imposter syndrome through DE&I initiatives

There are several barriers imposter syndrome creates that can be addressed to accelerate progress on diversity and inclusion. Whilst some organizations find diversifying difficult, there are examples of success in recent years. Before hiring and promotion processes begin, organizations can initiate training on avoiding bias in hiring, as demonstrated by Citigroup who saw the representation of women on its executive team go from 8% in 2014 to more than 30% in 2019. Making diversity a priority greatly reduces the risk of employees experiencing imposter syndrome, as they see themselves represented at the highest of levels.

Accessibility can also play a role, as Covid-19 demonstrated how important remote work can be for female professionals. Research shows that greater flexibility in remote working allows women to experience fewer microaggressions. This is especially pronounced for women of colour, LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities – groups that typically face more microaggressions. Male professionals have a key opportunity to contribute to the advancement of women in the staffing industry through their posture of collaboration, culture enforcements and promotion criteria.

Crucially, as men in the staffing industry actively advance their female peers, they become “allies”, helping to diminish the impact of imposter syndrome amongst women. According to a BCG study, amongst companies where men are involved in gender diversity 96% report some progress, compared to only 30% showing progress where men are not actively involved. Male involvement in DE&I initiatives is therefore crucial, however it is lacking. A study by Greatheart Leader Labs shows that the single biggest challenge for 70% of the white men surveyed stems from knowing whether they are “wanted” in DE&I discussions.

Another interesting finding the study reports is that white men face ambiguity in how DE&I efforts will advance their career. They may not be able to see the value in championing DE&I, if they do not see a direct payoff to their own role. A key part of breaking this sentiment is associating successful DE&I work with leadership. Lily Zheng, a DE&I strategist for Harvard Business Review, explains that it is crucial for organizations to include DE&I advocacy in their criteria of what makes a good leader. Explicitly tying the two will not only lead to more men actually advancing DE&I initiatives, but incentivize their want to do so too. Organizational diversity goals could be linked with promotion for example, or other specific rewards to increase participation. It remains imperative that white males hold their peers accountable for any exclusive or discriminatory manner. In addition, white males should encourage their peers to participate, as there is proactivity in numbers. This can have an extremely positive impact on allyship, and alleviating imposter feelings.

As women continue to excel in the staffing industry, our focus is on minimizing imposter feelings by building a diverse ecosystem within recruitment. DE&I efforts must be prioritized in order to nurture and advance female staff, to reduce the feeling of “I don’t deserve to be here”.

As Ruth Bader Ginsburg profoundly said, “as women achieve power, the barriers will fall… as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we’ll all be better off for it.”

Firsthand experiences and advice

Francesca Profeta – Research Analyst at Staffing Industry Analysts

We are aware that imposter syndrome is the inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved due to one’s efforts or skills. It is an ongoing battle for many, and it certainly is for me. I always felt I was where I was due to external factors such as a good manager that believed in me, supportive colleagues, and because I was just fortunate! Although I cannot deny the impact of those things on my life and career, the fact is I have, and know I will continue to put in a hefty workload. I have always worked hard, popped in those extra hours, and strived to provide my children with a good quality of life, which has been a major motivation. Despite the plaudits I get from colleagues and clients, there will always be that little voice that, unfortunately, has a nasty way of reminding me that I might be overstepping my capabilities and end up embarrassing myself. Finding ways to silence the inner critic is something we must work on as individuals.

An area that I see changing for the better is skills-based hiring. Not having a degree has added to my fear of not being enough; I am surrounded in the research team by some super intelligent people who I have the benefit of learning from. However, my fear of being “the weakest link” has often been a stumbling block. Hopefully our industry can help to change the narrative around this.

I once read “Good judgement comes from experience, and experience – well that comes from poor judgement.” I could literally write a book on my poor judgements – HA!

I would lie if I said I no longer suffer from imposter syndrome. However, experience and hindsight are great things, and over time, it has lessened. Preparation and continued learning, I feel, have been vital; not everything I have done has turned out perfectly. Although it was a hard pill to swallow at the time, it taught me a lot. Learning not to catastrophize a situation was probably my number one issue. A strategy I call “What’s the worst that can happen?” has been something I have learnt to remind myself about, being completely honest about your fears and then judging the likelihood of them happening. Put it this way, the possibility of failure is very slim when you rational about it

I am, of course, no psychologist/counsellor, but learning to acknowledge, validate and be okay is something I have learned to live with. I know what I am not overly good at; but I know what I am good at, and learning to live with it is okay with me now; after all, we can’t all be perfect at everything. What we are good at, we can definitely focus on and perfect. Building confidence in myself and my abilities has taken time, and I have picked up a “little wins” mindset.  Start small, do something in your personal or professional life that you have never done before by yourself, and once accomplished, congratulate yourself on a good job! This has helped me reframe the narrative from “not sure I can do this” to “what’s the worst that can happen?”.

There are many things I NEVER thought I would do in my professional career, but building up those little wins, continuous self-reflection, learning from my peers, and focusing on the facts has really helped me. Knowing you achieved that “small win” motivates you and pushes you forward; after all, those little wins end up making a big difference!”

Rachael ParkerSenior Vice President, East Coast, Skills Alliance

“An experience I can now relate directly to imposter syndrome would be board room meetings that were attended by people either at the same level, or more senior than myself in the business, where I felt I had either a difference in opinion or perspective to the other attendees and would struggle to find my voice to express this.  The irony is, I have a fantastic support network of people around me within the business, most of whom are in that room, who have done nothing but build my confidence up.

I think diversity of opinion is paramount to making good business critical decisions. If you are coming at something from a different perspective than 5 other people around you, we need to hear that perspective to prevent an echo chamber opinion that can provide a false sense of security, or at least to enhance internal communication and reach a wider audience.  In situations like meetings, a safe space with a structured agenda that allocates time for everyone’s input could be helpful.  In general, I think the broader the representation at a senior level within any business, the better equipped we are to make decisions that benefit it’s employee’s.”

Jasmine StewartSenior Manager and Head of DE&I at Skills Alliance

“Coming into a position of management was a stark contrast to my previous success in billing. Going from billing consistently for nine months straight to struggling immensely to meet targets was a very demoralizing experience. I started questioning my own abilities and worth when faced with such a setback. My inner dialogue reflects the common thought process of someone struggling with imposter syndrome. I wondered if my past success was merely luck, whether I were truly capable of managing, and if I even deserve to hold my current position at the time. These doubts were amplified by the perception that I was not living up to the expectations of my colleagues or superiors. I felt a huge amount of pressure to perform, coupled with a fear of failure.

I can only talk for myself, but to break free from the self-limiting belief, I realized I needed to transform the way I talked to myself. Rather than allowing negative thoughts to rule my mind, I made a conscious effort to engage in positive self-talk, which bolstered my confidence. This newfound confidence empowered me to seek guidance from my manager, mentors and friends, individuals who wholeheartedly believed in me. By heeding their words of encouragement, I was able to overcome the challenges and understand that success is rarely a linear path. It’s crucial to embrace the fact that setbacks are an inevitable part of any career journey. Even today, when things aren’t going as planned, doubts sometimes creep into my mind. However, I make a conscious effort to step back and see the bigger picture of all that I have achieved. Reflecting on my past successes reminds me that luck alone could not have been responsible for everything falling into place.”



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