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The impostor phenomenon: what is the responsibility of organisations

Julkaistu aiheella Ihmiset


Tiina Vanala
People Partner

Tiina Vanala toimii Nitorilla People Partnerina kulttuurin ja osaamisen kehittämisen parissa. Työssään hän luo valmennuksen ja oppimisen käytäntöjä sekä toimii hyvinvoinnin ja yhdenvertaisuuden edistäjänä.


12. kesäkuuta 2024 · 9 min lukuaika

The impostor phenomenon significantly affects individuals and hinders organisational success. This is the second part of a two-piece article series where Tiina Vanala uncovers the key findings of her master’s thesis on the contributing factors behind the impostor phenomenon in the IT industry.

The impostor phenomenon, commonly known as the impostor syndrome, manifests in individuals who attribute their achievements to luck or external factors rather than recognising their skills and abilities.

In my recent master's thesis, I aimed to contribute to understanding the factors behind intense impostor thoughts, particularly within information technology. Through interviews and narratives of IT professionals working as programmers, strategists, designers, and coaches, I examined how intense impostor thinking manifests and affects individuals and organisations and how the negative consequences of the impostor phenomenon could be mitigated.

In the preceding article, I explored the origins of impostor thinking and its impact on individuals and organisations. This piece shifts the focus to organisations' influence in perpetuating the impostor phenomenon and discusses strategies they can employ to alleviate it.

From high achiever culture to work community – organisations fuel impostor thinking

As my research shows, cultural narratives celebrating individual high-achievers impact those with impostor thoughts. Idealising certain types of personas leads to feelings of inadequacy, worsened by organisational tendencies to prioritise success over learning from failures and the limited impact of feedback.

Additionally, the work culture's influence on impostor thinkers may result in a reluctance to seek help, emphasising the need for psychological safety and supportive teamwork in addressing and mitigating the impostor phenomenon.

Unrealistic standards – inevitable failure

An example of an idealised persona is the concept of the 'hero coder,' a stereotype that is also present in my research interviews. This archetype is perceived as a programmer capable of effortlessly solving complex problems overnight and devising elegant solutions to any challenge, embodying a near-superhuman level of skill and resilience in coding.

The narratives paint a picture of an impostor who, observing others' masterful successes shining like stars, feels overshadowed and inadequate, thinking, "They have such broad knowledge, while I only know my limited area of expertise. I should be as knowledgeable as they are.”

The error of thinking here is that in the eyes of the impostor, the individual stars blend together, creating an illusion of infinite knowledge shared by everyone else but the lonely impostor scanning the night sky. To add to the complexity, another impostor probably shares the same cognitive distortion and looks at the first impostor as one of the heroic stars in the sky with all the knowledge.

If you are convinced that everyone around is top-tier, there's not much room for inadequacy. It needs to be veiled in terms of self-development and improvement. Getting out of the comfort zone and continuous learning is almost like a cult of development, and nothing is ever enough. Of course, this is already very characteristic of me, so the impostor feelings just get stronger.

The problem arises when impostors set standards for themselves based on that imaginary knowledge pool. Prior research describes a similar outlook of high standards, supported by my study’s narratives of unrealistic expectations for oneself. An impostor’s unrealistic expectations of themselves and perceiving their colleagues through an equally unrealistic lens set the stage for continuous disappointment and defeat.

Organisational communication has a role in maintaining the hero culture. Celebrating team and individual achievements is, of course, essential. However, it would be equally important to openly discuss challenges and less successful endeavours and learn from them together, leaving more room for acceptance and talent in progress.

The significance of feedback – and its source

Feedback, in general, is an important tool for learning and self-development. However, for impostor thinkers, relying on positive feedback isn’t an effective solution.

Most interviewees stated they get predominantly positive feedback from colleagues, supervisors, and customers. However, the positive effects of reaffirming feedback do not last very long. There is also significance in who gives the feedback, as we see in the following description:

It depends on who the feedback is from. It feels better if it's from a person you look up to or someone close to that ideal IT hero. But empty compliments, like something my mother would say, don't help. Even most of the customers' compliments are meaningless if they don't really know or understand what I do. Good feedback from a credible source is rare.

An impostor thinker seeks airtight proof of their success. Without hard evidence, the usual suspects, Luck and Mistake, find their way to justify the achievements and great results. Positive feedback from someone with undeniable authority helps to some extent, especially if they also possess an objectively proven track record in the eyes of the impostor. But the positive effect is short-lived and soon forgotten. That is why an effort to collect enough positive feedback to reach a scale that would permanently impact the impostor mindset seems a challenging task and a strategy without much relevance.

The role of work community and organisational culture

Individual work community members strongly influence the psychological safety of the organisation. Loose blurts from colleagues, even without hurtful intentions, may lead to impostors shying away from the community and learning opportunities.

I don't think I'm the only programmer who doesn't dare ask for help in our company communication channels. Many people could and would help, and asking would be an opportunity to learn for myself and others. But there must be others like me who just don't dare to ask because the question might be regarded as stupid, or someone says googling would be so much faster, and you're wasting people's time. Or they say something else negative and make you feel bad. Then you don't want to ask anything for a long time.

Preserving comfort zones is essential for impostor thinkers. They tend to create secure areas to minimise their exposure to difficult questions, challenging group dynamics, or events that might undermine their professional abilities.

At any given moment, a question that I can’t answer may stab my credibility bubble.

The image of what might happen to the interviewee when they cannot answer a question is violent. The bubble is delicate and vulnerable and must be protected at all costs. Protecting is easier when the bubble is placed somewhere safe, where the questions have less potential to stab like a knife. Many reported spending a lot of time learning everything there is to know about their area of expertise. Some even opted to schedule specific study curriculums outside their working hours.

One way to build safe zones is to look for a team of familiar and supportive colleagues. Every interviewee highlighted teamwork’s significance and how group effort often achieves the best results. A well-functioning and familiar team provides safety and predictability.

I try to create bonds with people I get along with and who I consider good people. I think I have created a pretty good relationship with a couple of people these days, and I dare to ask them questions now. I don't have to be as ashamed about it as at the beginning of the project.

Psychological safety and the support provided by their work community stood out as the most significant factors in either alleviating or fueling the impostor phenomenon. Each interviewee emphasised the importance of the community's role and how the overall atmosphere impacts them.

Mitigating the impostor phenomenon

Every IT professional I interviewed for my study knows they are educated, successful in their work, receive good feedback, and are well-liked colleagues. This is the knowledge they resort to when impostor thoughts get too heavy to bear. They use logic and reasoning to put things into perspective to continue functioning.

Some have discovered a self-compassionate inner voice either by learning the language in therapy or with the help of a friend or a psychologist. Self-compassion increases resilience against impostorism, but based on my research, an individual likely needs support to learn how to utilise the method. Sometimes, even learning what self-compassion actually means is the necessary first step.

The intervention methods used in coping with impostor thoughts are variant and inventive. Numerous self-help guides and books offer solutions for impostors to overcome their distorted thought patterns. Unfortunately, self-help alone is not sufficient to cure impostorism. As self-doubt is at the core of the problem, overcoming impostor thinking without external support is very challenging.

So, how can an individual overcome their impostor thoughts in an environment constantly signalling that they don't belong or aren't enough? No number of self-help books and guides can affect their surroundings.

Organisations are a big part of the solution

Changing the past for each impostor is not possible, but organisations are in a position where they can relieve the impostor phenomenon – or, at worst, act as fuel to the fire. Prior research has established that investing resources in mitigating the negative effects of the impostor phenomenon prevents exhaustion and burnout, dissatisfaction, and sick leaves.

My study confirms that enhancing psychological safety, normalising inadequacy, and embracing diversity would diminish the situations where impostor thoughts thrive. The organisation and its members have the power and responsibility to influence these elements.

Organisations can provide services such as psychotherapy, peer groups, coaching, and mentoring that are deemed helpful in alleviating impostor thoughts among employees. As not all methods work for everyone, offering a selection of services and tools will enhance the probability of success. The key is to let the impostors know they are not alone with their thoughts and help is available.

The impostor phenomenon is a complex thought construction that differs in each individual regarding its origin and effects. As the effects are not limited to the individual alone, it is very much in the organisation’s interest to allocate resources to understand and mitigate the phenomenon. Otherwise, they risk decreased productivity and innovation – consequences completely avoidable.

In fact, I argue that organisations are responsible for carrying the primary burden of impostorism, not the individual suffering from it. The impostor phenomenon is much about exclusion in its many forms, and exclusive company culture creates and fuels impostor thinking.

Luckily, there are several steps and corrective approaches organisations can take:

  • Open discussion about the impostor phenomenon within the organisation creates an understanding of it and a supportive environment for employees to share their experiences. Realising they are not alone reduces feelings of isolation and self-doubt.

  • Organising peer support and discussion groups allow people to connect with others who can relate to their experiences, share advice, and provide encouragement. This facilitates mutual growth and resilience.

  • Providing psychotherapy and psychologist services offers professional support to employees experiencing impostor thoughts. It helps them to explore their thoughts and emotions, develop coping strategies, and enhance their self-confidence.

  • Coaching and mentoring services give access to personalised guidance and support. It helps the employees to develop their skills, put things into perspective, build confidence, and challenge self-doubt – ultimately empowering them to overcome the impostor phenomenon and thrive in their roles and beyond.

  • Most importantly, promoting diversity and normalising inadequacy fosters an inclusive culture that values individual differences and recognises individual strengths and areas of growth. An inclusive culture empowers employees to embrace their authentic selves and contribute to their fullest potential.

To conclude, the impostor phenomenon is a significant challenge for expert organisations, with numerous factors behind it. There are effective ways to improve the quality of work life for people suffering from impostor thinking, but it takes some honest organisational reflection to get the good work going.

If you want to hear more about my research, read the full thesis with references here: Impostor phenomenon – Narratives of information technology professionals


Tiina Vanala
People Partner

Tiina Vanala toimii Nitorilla People Partnerina kulttuurin ja osaamisen kehittämisen parissa. Työssään hän luo valmennuksen ja oppimisen käytäntöjä sekä toimii hyvinvoinnin ja yhdenvertaisuuden edistäjänä.