Lately I’ve been discussing the need for a fresh look at ‘imposter phenomenon’ and how helpful it is.

An alternative explanation for it is identity threat, feelings of threat and anxiety that are evoked when your demographic identity is in the minority – for example, for women where gender stereotypes suggest that women don’t fit, or don’t have the same capabilities as men.

It can also be felt by men in nursing workforces when they are in the minority.

Identity threat increases anxiety and results in lowered performance.

Zoe Kinias and Jessica Sims created a very simple exercise that helped women commencing their MBAs at INSEAD to reduce their experience of identity threat: this exercise was so powerful that it reduced grade differences between women and men. Historically, women are under-represented in MBA cohorts and their grades are lower; as minorities it’s likely that identity threat is at work.

As part of their orientation, one group of women participants was given a task to select two or three values from a list of 10 and to reflect on them. They wrote about why these values were important to them, and how they demonstrated them in their lives.

They were prompted to provide details, examples and/or explanations in their responses.

Another group was given the same task, although the values list was changed to emphasise organisational rather than personal values.

What’s fascinating about this study is that the focus on personal values appeared to work incredibly well as a protection against identity threat, and feelings of self-doubt. Writing their stories appeared to bolster their resilience to the extent that there was NO performance gap between men and women.

Performance gaps remained for women who completed the organisationally-focused values task or who did not participate in the study. 

If you are in a context where you are a minority, you can use this exercise on yourself, as protection against identity threat.

If you are the leader and you are onboarding someone from a minority group, or have someone in your team who may be affected by identity threat, you can encourage them to complete this task.

Its use as a part of induction processes is something that HR leaders should consider: when someone from a minority group joins a new work team, they may benefit greatly from completing such an exercise.

If we can think differently about what’s going on when we talk about imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon and notice how it affects groups that are different from the norm, we can label it differently, and respond more effectively.

We can find better ways to support leaders and emerging leaders, to intervene to help people create a better ‘relationship with their own thinking’ as well as to maximise talent and performance.


Book a call with me today to find out more about how my executive coaching can help increase your psychological flexibility, guarding you against both insidious thoughts of imposterism, as well as beating yourself up for having them.

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