Career fear: new research reveals the hidden benefit of imposter syndrome

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Anna Brech
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Do you suffer from imposter syndrome in your career? It could make you more sociable and empathetic, according to new research.

It’s the debilitating “career fear” mindset that affects two-thirds of women in the UK. But new research suggests that there could be a hidden silver lining to having imposter syndrome at work.

According to a paper published this week by Basima Tewfik, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, feeling like you’re out of your depth, or not good enough, at your role has the converse impact of making you a better team player.

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“People who have workplace impostor thoughts become more other-oriented as a result of having these thoughts,” Tewfik tells college news site MIT News, of her research. “As they become more other-oriented, they’re going to be evaluated as being more interpersonally effective.”

The academic’s field work showed that people who suffer from professional self-doubt develop an “other-focused orientation” over time, in order to compensate for their perceived shortcomings. This shift means that those suffering imposter-style thoughts are more open and aware of colleagues around them. “They were more empathetic, they listened better, and they elicited information well,”  Tewfik reports, adding that they also “exhibited greater eye gaze, more open hand gestures, and more nodding” with team members, in her observational study.

Female colleagues at work
Having imposter syndrome could make you more empathetic, according to new research

Separate research from global not-for-profit Catalyst last year revealed that empathy is a key, and undervalued, trait for great leadership; particularly when it comes to “innovation, inclusion and the success of female and minority community workers”. Moreover, this quality has become more important as the brunt of post-Covid stress continues, along with dialogue around mental wellbeing in the workplace

A massive 75% of executive-level women have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their career, a study from the accountancy giant KPMG found last year. And, although this latest research suggests that these leaders may develop more empathy as a result of that self-doubt, study author Tewfik emphasises that her findings do not mean imposter syndrome should be encouraged. 

“There are far better ways to make someone interpersonally effective. Impostor thoughts lower positive thoughts and still lower self-esteem,” she says. But, she adds, her paper targets the “myth” that imposter syndrome “is always going to be bad for your performance”.

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Traditionally, imposter syndrome is thought to have affected more women than men at work. A telling statistic from the firm Hewlett Packard shows that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.

Even from the point of hiring, then, women have a tendency to underestimate their potential to learn and thrive in any given role. But intriguingly, Tewfik’s latest research did not find a higher prevalence of the condition among women versus men.

Naomi OSaka at the 2021 US Open in a bright yellow dress and black cap
Tennis star Naomi Osaka suffers from professional self-doubt

One thing’s for sure,  however: imposter syndrome can strike at any point in your career; no matter how accomplished, objectively, that you are.  “I definitely have imposter syndrome,” I May Destroy You star and creator Michaela Coel recently told Stylist“Do you know what I googled a couple of days ago? How to accept a compliment. Because there’s a lot of them coming at me right now.”

Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka shared last year that she suffers from similar self-doubt; but she also offered words of wisdom on reaching beyond the mindset. “I’m gonna try to celebrate myself and my accomplishments more, I think we all should,” the tennis star wrote in a tweet. “I know I give my heart to everything I can and if that’s not good enough for some then my apologies but I can’t burden myself with those expectations anymore.”

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.