The New YSU! Research Studies Imposter Phenomenon

By Rebecca Badaway, assistant professor of management at Youngstown State University.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Impostor Phenomenon refers to successful people who feel like intellectual fakes – who believe they are not as competent as they let on, do not belong in the roles they hold, and have somehow fooled the people around them into thinking they are competent. Examples exist in all life spaces, from the student who believes they were accepted into college due to an administrative mistake to the CEO who feels woefully misplaced in their role.

In the 2015 Harvard commencement address delivered by actress Natalie Portman, the impostor phenomenon resonated in her recollection of her own experience at Harvard. “I felt like there had been some mistake…that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth, I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress,” she said.

Three main hallmarks of the impostor phenomenon include believing you have fooled others into overestimating your ability, attributing success to external factors such as luck or chance (and not internal factors like intelligence and skill) and experiencing dread and fear of being exposed. Impostors constantly walk through their work day feeling they have to hide their “incompetent” self and therefore often adopt coping strategies to excuse away poor performance, such as self-handicapping through reduced effort and procrastination.

My colleagues and I sought to investigate what types of workplace situations put these feelings of inauthenticity on high alert by looking at how impostors react to receiving negative feedback and to being put in situations where their performance would be visible.

Across two experimental studies, we found that males who experience imposter feelings reacted more negatively to these performance cues than did females with those same feelings. Male impostors experienced greater anxiety after receiving negative feedback and under conditions of high accountability than did female impostors and exhibited less effort and poorer performance on a task when held accountable to a higher authority. Comparatively, females with higher levels of imposter phenomenon exhibited more effort and performed better than their male counterparts after receiving negative feedback.

These findings run contrary to the traditionally held view that females are impacted more, and suggest that male impostors likely experience greater concern about maintaining a positive image of competence. This may, at least in part, be attributed to gender norm violation concerns. Because the broader society values males who demonstrate competence and females who are nurturing and cooperative, male impostors may self-handicap to explain the poor performance they were anticipating, reducing the likelihood of negative evaluations from inconsistent gender norm expression. In contrast, female impostors might feel unconstrained by gender norm expectations of competence, allowing them to react to negative feedback and accountability in an adaptive way – increasing effort resulting in higher performance.

These results hold a number of important practical implications for employees, managers and organizations. Awareness is key. Employees who experience impostor feelings should recognize the limiting effect these feelings have on their well-being and work-related behaviors, and counteract the knee-jerk reaction of self-handicapping. Managers should recognize these signs in their employees, and understand that reduced effort, procrastination and decreased productivity might be symptoms stemming from impostor feelings and not simply laziness.

Mentoring by managers may be beneficial in these cases because a constructive leader-follower relationship should help individuals draw competence expectations from a specific mentor, rather than broader norms. Skills training and stretch assignments may also be useful in teaching impostors to recognize their own agency over themselves. Organizations should embrace techniques that encourage employee growth such as investing resources into employee careers.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.