Study Reveals Unexpected Benefit to Impostor Syndrome | MIT News

Even many successful people harbor what is commonly known as impostor syndrome, a feeling of being secretly unworthy and not as capable as others think. First posed by psychologists in 1978, it is often seen as a debilitating problem.

But research from an MIT researcher suggests that’s not universally true. In the workplace, at least, those who harbor impostor-type concerns tend to compensate for their perceived shortcomings by being good team players with strong social skills and are often recognized as productive workers by their employers.

“People who have impostor thoughts at work become more other-oriented as a result of these thoughts,” says Basima Tewfik, assistant professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and author of a new paper detailing her findings. “As they become more people-oriented, they’re going to be rated as more interpersonally effective.”

Tewfik’s research as a whole suggests that we should rethink some of our assumptions about impostor-type complexes and their dynamics. At the same time, she stresses, the prevalence of these types of thoughts among workers should not be ignored, dismissed or even encouraged.

“There are much better ways to make someone effective on an interpersonal level. Thoughts of impostors diminish positive thoughts and further diminish self-esteem,” says Tewfik, career development teacher for the class of 1943. to Sloan, and whose research often examines workplace and organizational issues.However, as his research reveals, “the myth is that it will always be bad for your performance.”

The article, “The Impostor Phenomenon Revisited: Examining the Relationship between Workplace Impostor Thoughts and Interpersonal Effectiveness at Work”, is available online at Journal of the Academy of Management and will appear in the June print edition.

Field observations

The concept of the “impostor phenomenon” was originally presented in a 1978 article by two psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who initially focused their work on women with high performing careers and went on to explore the subject in further work.

Even this original conceptualization observed that people suffering from impostor-style professional self-doubt are often highly socially skilled, an aspect of the matter that Tewfik decided to explore further. Her research includes fieldwork in companies and surveys, to identify the consequences of what she calls “imposing thoughts in the workplace”.

For example, Tewfik surveyed employees at an investment management firm, to see if and when they struggle with thoughts of imposters in the workplace, while collecting employee ratings. Over an extended period of time, employees with impostor-type thoughts were perceived by their employers to work more effectively with their colleagues, while being overall productive.

“I found this relationship positive,” says Tewfik. “For those who have impostor thoughts to [the beginning of the time period]two months later, their supervisors rated them as more interpersonally effective. »

Tewfik then looked at a training program for doctors and repeated the process of surveying people as they went through the course. Likewise, those who had the most impostor thoughts in the workplace were the ones who connected best with patients.

“What I have found is again this positive relationship, these doctors [with impostor concerns] were rated by their patients as more interpersonally effective, they were more empathetic, they listened better, and they got information well,” Tewfik notes.

Because the doctor training program featured recorded videos of its participants, Tewfik was able to determine how some doctors connected better with people: “Those doctors in training who reported more impostor thoughts were also the ones who showed a wider gaze, more open hand gestures. , and more nodding, and that basically explains why patients gave them higher interpersonal effectiveness ratings.

Tewfik also conducted two additional surveys, using the Prolific platform, with employees from various companies, extracting insights into impostor thoughts in the workplace, their persistence and implications for performance. at work. Among other things, Tewfik did not find a greater prevalence of impostor thoughts in the workplace for women than for men, contrary to popular perception of the phenomenon – as well as original research from the 1970s. which focused on women.

Rethinking a real problem

According to Tewfik, these findings from overlapping fieldwork and surveys establish a clear chain of causality related to impostor complexes, in which workers deploy compensatory mechanisms to thrive despite their doubts: “Because you have thoughts from impostors, you adopt a others-centered orientation, which leads to greater interpersonal effectiveness.

The data also suggests that impostor thoughts in the workplace are not a permanent feature of an employee’s mindset; people can get rid of these kinds of concerns as they settle into their position.

In general, Tewfik thinks, such a dynamic indicates that impostor thoughts in the workplace “may not be what we originally conceptualized,” at least in its popularized form. Indeed, Tewfik prefers not to label impostor thoughts in the workplace as a syndrome in its own right, with its connotations of negativity and permanence.

Even so, she adds, “What I don’t want people to take away is the idea that because people with impostor thoughts are more effective interpersonally, it’s not not a problem.” People working in non-collective settings may struggle with the same doubts, but have no way to compensate for them with interpersonal relationships due to their solitary work routines.

“We found a positive net result, but there might be scenarios where you won’t find it,” says Tewfik. “If you work in a place where you don’t have interpersonal interaction, it could be very bad if you have impostor thoughts.”

Tewfik continues his own research on the subject, examining questions such as whether the thoughts of imposters in the workplace could be linked to creativity. She says she would be happy if more scholars draw additional empirical conclusions about the thoughts of imposters in the workplace.

“I hope this article sparks a broader conversation around this phenomenon,” says Tewfik. “My hope is really that other researchers join this conversation. This is an area that is ripe for much future research.

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