The Warning Signs of Imposter Syndrome and How it Can Sabotage Your Work

The Warning Signs of Imposter Syndrome and How it Can Sabotage Your Work

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Most of your colleagues, and yourself, experience a lack of confidence from time to time.

But sometimes a moment of self-doubt can escalate into questioning your own achievements and feeling like a fraud. That painful condition is referred to as “ imposter syndrome ”; a temporary state of being that can cause real problems.

It’s normal to have the odd crisis of confidence, and even the most accomplished people have suffered from imposter syndrome occasionally. Research published in the Journal of Behavioral Science estimates that about 70 percent of people in the United States have experienced Imposter syndrome to some degree.

But the imposter syndrome can create a barrier that keeps you from being productive at work, when you unconsciously act on the insidious way that it undermines your sense of wellbeing.

Imposter Syndrome

The term “Imposter syndrome” was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imesis, who noticed that successful women often considered their achievements to be a matter of luck, rather than ability. Since then, the phenomenon has been observed in both genders.

The syndrome is characterized by feelings of inadequacy, a sense that you don’t measure up to your colleagues, that you’re undeserving of your position, and fear of being caught out as a fraud. These feelings can be persistent, despite ample evidence that they are not based on reality. You can be eminently qualified for your position, a high achiever, and an honored leader in your industry, while battling deep-seated insecurities about your abilities.

In milder bouts of imposter syndrome, people learn techniques to regulate the intensity, managing to function without being overwhelmed by the occasional faltering of confidence. Others fight these feelings by giving 110 percent, in search of the achievement that will prove that they are worthy. Onlookers may never realize the inner turmoil that the competent executive above them undergoes, even as they move forward professionally.

But these feelings can also hamper your progress in your career. Here are some signs that your temporary imposter syndrome is becoming a hindrance to your success.

Turning Down Opportunities

Are you turning down promotions, or avoiding taking the initiative for a project? Are you reluctant to take on new assignments? Your lack of self-confidence might be manifesting itself as a feeling of not being ready, or maybe you are passed over because you stay quiet about your accomplishments.

This is a situation that could leave you stagnating, instead of thriving. Challenge yourself to say “yes” to the next invitation or submit a proposal for a new project. When your confidence flags, focus on your strengths, and carry on. Make a list of your achievements, even if you aren’t ready to share them, for reference in those moments.


You’re not getting any work done, and it shows in missed deadlines and miffed teammates. You don’t feel capable of doing a good job, and the self-doubt is paralyzing enough to keep you from being productive.

Being a perfectionist is often related to procrastination, when you set such unrealistic standards that you can’t get started. Another associated issue is over-preparation, where your insecurities drive you to spend excessive time on a task that doesn’t merit it.

Your fear of making a mistake and being “found out” is at the root of these obstacles to getting the job done. Remind yourself that “the perfect is the enemy of the good” and frame mistakes as opportunities to learn.

Going It Alone

You avoid collaborating on projects, even when working together would result in a better outcome. You may feel you won’t measure up to the others, or be hesitant to ask for help, considering it a sign of weakness. You’re not seen as a team player. When teamwork is a priority at the company, that can raise concerns with leadership.

At the next opportunity, join a team project and focus on adapting your work style to be more inclusive. You might compare yourself unfavorably to others at first, but increased exposure to other people at work could lead to more realistic expectations of yourself. You might also experience a confidence boost when your contribution is appreciated.

Fear of Being Fired

You live in constant fear of being fired, even though there has been no indication that it is a possibility. You may even receive positive feedback and yet you dread having conversations with the boss, anticipating a dismissal. The fear can be immobilizing, to the point that you’re unproductive at work and trying to improve seems futile. You might even be thinking about finding a new job, which triggers more fears.

Your manager may be able to help with this. Try approaching him or her and asking for feedback on your performance. If you can identify the source of these feelings of insecurity, such as a project you are unsure about, talk it over. Be prepared for constructive criticism, but also relief from bringing your concerns into the open.

If a meeting with your manager can’t be scheduled soon, remind yourself that you were hired because you were qualified for the job. Focus on work to distract yourself from negative self-talk, or volunteer to help an office mate with a project.

As you counter the negative internal messages consistently, with positive reinforcement of your areas of competence and achievements, you will become more adept at shaking off the effects of imposter syndrome before you are overwhelmed. It also helps to make a conscious effort to reduce your isolation and engage with co-workers regularly. It will bring perspective to your own situation, as you get to know that others have insecurities, make mistakes, and continue to thrive.

Are you doing all you can to maximize your value? Learn more with IvyExec’s Career Advice.

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