Employer Branding

How HR Can Help Employees Defeat Imposter Syndrome

It may not be the most glamorous job in the world, but there is an element of flair to working in human resources.

People aren’t reducible to simple numbers or even facts, so recruitment requires a certain amount of insight, instinct, and imagination. Human resources professionals need to imagine how each candidate will fit into the role and the team for which they are proposed.

Occasionally that means picking a candidate out of leftfield. Perhaps someone with less experience than the written job description states, or somebody whose academic background is less traditional than that to which your business is accustomed. This recruit may even surprise themselves by getting the job.

But an employee doesn’t need to be an unconventional fit for the job to suffer from imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome can affect the most successful of people, and it is based on subjective worry (often brought about by social conditioning) rather than on rational reflection – even though it may feel like a rational reflection to the person experiencing it.

The condition affects just over half of men and two-thirds of women, and as its pioneering researchers have pointed out, the difference is in a big part to do with the way that we question and undervalue women in western society.

“Certain early family dynamics and later introjection of societal sex-role stereotyping appear to contribute significantly to the development of the impostor phenomenon,” wrote Clance and Imes in their groundbreaking paper in 1978. “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

Given that you can’t undo centuries of patriarchal gaslighting, and indeed that your employees are reasonably likely to suffer from imposter syndrome regardless of their gender, what can you do to help somebody that seems to be suffering from this phenomenon?

To some degree, as a human resources pro, you are in a better position than a regular therapist or support group to help an IS sufferer. That’s because traditional ‘sharing’ approaches are not always the most effective way to cope with the issue. It’s very hard to convince someone with IS that they’re not an imposter – because they tend to assume that they’ve inadvertently fooled you into thinking they’re more talented than they are. But in HR, you have experience and access to evidence of your employee’s abilities and successes.

You’re also ideally placed to trace the disparity between an employee’s performance and their state of mind. In other words, if they don’t know or don’t speak up about imposter syndrome, you can help them to identify and take steps from there.

A new visual guide to imposter syndrome from contains an excellent flow chart to help you and your colleague to identify the problem if it exists. It’s worth making this resource generally known to your crew, too, in case they prefer to keep their worries to themselves.

The guide also expands on some of the ideas of Dr. Valerie Young, a former sufferer of imposter syndrome who has since created an educational framework to help people to recover.

Young says that because everybody has their own definition of success, each IS sufferer goes through their own version of the syndrome when they fall short of their expectations – so we need different approaches to defeat the condition. Further, Young has identified five flawed definitions of success that are commonly held. The visual guide from offers some ideas on how to cope with each category.

Whether your troubled employee rose to their position by an unlikely route or they are a textbook success story, their imposter syndrome is best dealt with by a change of mindset. Once they’ve conquered IS, they can get back on the ladder and you can help them work to achieve even greater things.

About the author: John Cole writes on behalf of NeoMam Studios. A digital nomad specializing in leadership, digital media, and personal growth topics, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in the UK, Norway, and the Balkans.

By Ushma Mistry

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