Our preoccupation with impostor syndrome is giving rise to a strange paradox. As Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Emma Vehviläinen eloquently point out in their recent Fast Company article, highly competent people who experience imposter feelings may underperform when they interact with bosses who conflate confidence with competence and who sacrifice substance for style; paradoxically such bosses are more likely to choose people who are actually impostors.

The more confident and self-promoting you are, the less likely you are to have the capability that organisations need to deal with the complexity and challenges of our current world. And yet, organisations continue to fall for this package, which makes it more likely that real impostors get ahead.

Those people who feel like they are impostors are less confident and self-promoting, are more likely to get in their own way, yet their humility and self-criticism is more likely to contribute to thoughtful and well-considered ideas and solutions.

As Chamorro-Premuzic and Vehviläinen say, when people who experience imposterism ‘expect to see a performative act of showcasing confidence, self-promotion, and assertiveness, making an effort to play the game will increase the probability that they turn their impostor syndrome into a self-fulfilling prophesy.’

This is a familiar psychological effect – trying to suppress thoughts does the reverse, it tends to magnify them, causing a drop in performance.

Instead, they argue that providing you do have impostor ‘syndrome’ and that you are competent – that is, you believe you will be found out for being incompetent – it is better to hide these insecurities.

In yet another facet of this paradox, women are actually much less likely to be seen by others as fraudulent. They are more likely to be under-estimated than they are to be over-estimated. If women are more likely to be under-estimated why would they think they are frauds?

This question continues to puzzle me. The ubiquity of impostor syndrome – no such thing! – continues apace. And it continues despite the reality that in many organisations women’s talents and skills are more likely to be under- than over-estimated.

Women are more likely to be overlooked, despite having equal skills.

In just one of many studies women were judged to lack competence, experience and knowledge, even where blind evaluation showed this not to be the case. There’s plenty of evidence of this kind of under-estimation.

So why then are women reporting that they feel like frauds? They ought to be reporting the opposite. (And some do!) A contextual/organisational/social issue is being psychologised through the popularity of ‘impostor syndrome’ and that results in the problem being flipped from a social one to an individual one – the problem ends up in our heads where it has no right to be.

By popularising the idea of impostorism, we continue to downplay the contextual forces that create these feelings. As Leslie Jamison says in her recent article in The New Yorker the phrase is ‘technically incorrect and conceptually misleading.’

The thoughts in my head do feel like they are all my own, but the way I make meaning is informed by my external world. When I feel the anxiety and pressure of not fitting in, the outside world gives me a label to use – I feel like an impostor. In contexts where psychological safety is low and there is little genuine support for equality, I end up with negative thoughts. I don’t feel safe, I need to protect myself, it’s confusing to know what to do, how to feel, and who I should be. I am, then, more likely to feel fraudulent because the context is telling me I don’t fit. Once I’ve internalised this meaning, it can seem to be fully mine.

Ridiculously, we’re internalising the idea that we are not competent or worthy when the ‘problem’ is that we are competent and worthy, and more – yet there remain too many organisations and contexts where this just isn’t recognised.

And take heart from the impostor paradox –  Harness your doubts and self-criticism, accept them as having value, and challenge your organisation to be more welcoming of uncertainty and possibility.

To read more about this complex issue and how you can reframe your own success, read my full newsletter article here.

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