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Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace: Feeling Fake Despite Success

Ever nailed a presentation, crushed a project, then immediately convinced yourself it was all a fluke? You’re not alone.  Welcome to the world of imposter syndrome, a sneaky phenomenon that plagues high-achievers across all industries.

Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon or the impostor experience, is a psychological pattern where individuals doubt their accomplishments and competence. In the workplace, this can manifest in high-achieving employees feeling like frauds, fearing they’ll be exposed as incompetent.

Here’s a breakdown of imposter syndrome and its impact:


Individuals experiencing imposter syndrome attribute their success to luck, external factors, or simply “faking it.” They downplay their skills and knowledge, often comparing themselves unfavorably to colleagues they perceive as more talented. This internal self-doubt fuels anxiety and can lead to a reluctance to take on new challenges or share their ideas.

Examples in the Workplace:

  • A salesperson consistently exceeds quotas but worries they’ll be exposed as simply “lucky.”
  • A manager downplays their leadership skills and hesitates to delegate tasks, fearing they won’t be able to provide adequate guidance.
  • A talented engineer constantly revises their work and avoids public speaking due to a fear of being seen as unknowledgeable.
Origin Story

The exact science behind imposter syndrome is still evolving, but researchers have identified some potential contributing factors:

Cognitive Biases:

  • Self-serving bias: We tend to attribute our successes to internal factors (skill, hard work) but blame failures on external factors (bad luck, difficult circumstances). This can make it hard to internalize accomplishments and fuel feelings of inadequacy.
  • Confirmation bias: We pay more attention to information that confirms our existing beliefs. Someone with imposter syndrome might focus on minor mistakes as evidence of their incompetence, while overlooking their successes.
  • Downward social comparison: We often compare ourselves to those we perceive as more successful. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, especially for high achievers who constantly set the bar higher.

Attributional Style:

  • People with a mastery-oriented attributional style believe their success comes from effort and skill, while those with a helplessness-oriented style attribute success to luck or external factors. Imposter syndrome is more common in people with a helplessness-oriented style.

Personality Traits:

  • Perfectionism: The relentless pursuit of flawlessness can lead to self-criticism and a fear of falling short.
  • Neuroticism: Individuals high in neuroticism are more prone to anxiety and negative self-talk, which can contribute to imposter syndrome.


  • Early Experiences: A lack of praise or encouragement during childhood, or critical parenting styles, can contribute to feelings of inadequacy that carry over into adulthood.
  • Cultural Factors: Cultures with a strong emphasis on achievement and competition might make individuals more susceptible to imposter syndrome.
The Imposter Cycle

Imposter syndrome often follows a predictable cycle:

Success Triggers Doubt: You experience some form of success, whether it’s completing a project, receiving positive feedback, or landing a promotion. Instead of feeling proud or accomplished, the imposter cycle kicks in. You might downplay your achievement, attributing it to luck, external factors, or simply “faking it.”

Internal Comparisons: You compare yourself to others, highlighting their perceived brilliance and downplaying your own skills. This fuels self-doubt and negative self-talk. You might think things like, “They’re going to find out I don’t really know what I’m doing,” or “I just got lucky this time.”

Increased Anxiety: Self-doubt fuels anxiety, making you overly critical of your work and hesitant to take on new challenges.

  • This fear can manifest in different ways, such as:
    • Overwork and perfectionism: You try to overcompensate by working excessively and striving for flawless results, which can lead to burnout.
    • Procrastination: You might delay tasks or projects due to fear of failure.
    • Reduced Risk-Taking: You become hesitant to take on new challenges or share your ideas for fear of being judged.
Breaking the Cycle

Cognitive Reframing:

  • Self-Compassion vs. Self-Criticism: A 2017 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found self-compassion, treating yourself with kindness understanding during setbacks, to be more effective than self-criticism in reducing imposter syndrome and promoting motivation.
  • Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset: Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s work highlights the power of a growth mindset. Believing your abilities can develop through effort (growth mindset) versus being fixed and unchangeable (fixed mindset) can buffer against imposter syndrome according to a 2013 study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. View self-doubt as a signal to grow, not a confirmation of inadequacy. Use it to identify areas for improvement. Recognize the cognitive biases fueling your self-doubt and challenge those thought patterns with evidence of your skills and accomplishments.

Challenge Negative Attributions:

  • Internal vs. External Attributions: Imposter syndrome often involves attributing successes to external factors (luck, help from others) and failures to internal factors (lack of ability). A 2018 study in the Journal of Educational Psychology suggests that challenging these attributions and focusing on your internal skills and effort for successes can combat imposter syndrome.

Focus on Evidence, Not Emotion:

  • Fact-Checking Negative Thoughts: A 2017 study in Behavior Research and Therapy recommends keeping a “success journal” where you document your accomplishments, positive feedback, and evidence of your skills. Refer to this journal when self-doubt arises to counter negative thoughts with concrete facts.
  • Focus on Facts, Not Feelings: Separate your self-worth from your accomplishments. Acknowledge your achievements, even if they feel like flukes.

Celebrate Wins (Big and Small): Take time to acknowledge your successes, no matter how small. This reinforces your capabilities and builds confidence. Save those emails from your boss that expressed praise. Hang on to those positive performance reviews. These will be helpful pieces of hard evidence when we’re diving headfirst into a pool of self-doubt.

Focus on Learning: View challenges and setbacks as opportunities to learn and improve. All mistakes are simply data. They inform where are strengths lie and our growth edges exist. Also consider challenging yourself with new projects or responsibilities. Stepping outside your comfort zone can build confidence and demonstrate your capabilities.

Find Your Support System: Vulnerability breeds connection. And connection can be such a powerful antidote when we’re otherwise feeling alone with imposter thoughts and self-doubt in the workplace. Chances are, many of your colleagues might share a similar experience to you.

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