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The impostor phenomenon: where it stems from and what are the costs

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.


4. kesäkuuta 2024 · 7 min lukuaika

The impostor phenomenon significantly affects the individual but also hinders organisational success. This article is part one of a two-piece series in which Tiina Vanala uncovers the key findings of her master's thesis on the contributing factors behind the impostor phenomenon in the IT industry.

A person suffering from the impostor phenomenon, commonly known as impostor syndrome, is characterised by the belief that their accomplishments result from luck, chance, or some other influence than their abilities and skills.

The field of information technology is said to be particularly susceptible to the impostor phenomenon because it develops fast, and one must constantly acquire new skills. The nature of the work is creative problem-solving, and the common narratives in the field celebrate myths about individual heroism.

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 this article, I'll cover how the impostor phenomenon affects individuals and organisations and which factors fuel the fire of feeling inadequateness. My follow-up article tackles the pivotal role of organisations and gives concrete tools to mitigate the impostor phenomenon.

“One day, they all realise that I’m a fraud”

Individuals haunted by impostor thinking question their competence despite successes and professional achievements such as position, title, and job responsibilities. Fear of being exposed, low self-efficacy beliefs, and inability to derive satisfaction from achievements can result in self-handicapping, emotional distress, burnout, and other harmful effects on mental well-being.

The negative impacts of the impostor phenomenon extend beyond the individual, affecting organisational productivity and social dynamics. Studies show that individuals with high levels of impostor thoughts reported less career planning, lower career striving, and decreased motivation to lead.

In addition to career progression, impostor thinking can hinder goal achievement, causing increased stress and fatigue. Self-doubt often reduces performance and productivity, leading individuals to avoid sharing ideas, embracing challenges, and making decisions, ultimately impacting organisational success.

Shame, fear, and anxiety limit learning at work. Those suffering from the impostor phenomenon may overlook opportunities to advance in their careers. In essence, when high achievers deny success to themselves, they repel the fear of rejection. Impostors fear achieving a higher position because they are afraid of failing in it. Therefore, it is easier to settle for a secure position.

Overperforming to cover for perceived shortcomings is emblematic of impostors. This may be seen as a positive feature from a colleague's perspective, who can always rely on the impostor going above and beyond to ensure the team’s success. Basima A. Tewfik, an assistant professor at MIT Sloan, found that impostor thinkers tend to do well in interpersonal relationships and are often considered well-liked colleagues.

One could argue that impostor thinking may result in growing social capital and benefits. But the price may also be high. Continuous overperforming and relentless delivery is a fast track to stress and burnout.

Impostor thoughts are linked to job anxiety and job depression. Understanding how restrictive such a mindscape can be and how it hinders individual and organisational development is the key to unlocking the potential of a substantial number of people.

The research interviews also demonstrated how painful the internal world with intense impostor thoughts can be. The wordings reveal the threat of violence and hurt. Choosing words like "stab," "die," "devil," and "horrible" attest to the need for psychological safety to mitigate the detrimental effects of the impostor phenomenon.

From childhood to professional career: root causes are diverse

To date, research recognises various factors that contribute to intense impostor thoughts. These include childhood and youth experiences, parenting approaches, personality traits, social status, and self-efficacy beliefs. Protective upbringing, excessive expectation management, and high academic expectations are also identified as factors fueling impostorism.

The study interviews showcase the impact of upbringing and personality traits but also highlight the impact of learning disabilities, social class transitions, and gender-related biases on impostor thoughts. The narratives indicate that impostorism affects individuals regardless of their years of experience or seniority.

Learning disabilities and social positioning

Learning disabilities and youthhood challenges may position a person as an underdog in relation to others, which can later result in impostor thoughts. Overcoming these difficulties may require hard work and leave a mental trace that is difficult to erase.

According to some accounts, climbing up the social ladder from a lower social class in their childhood family and experiences of being underprivileged fueled impostorism. In fields that emphasise a high level of expertise and where personal confidence can significantly influence career progression, possessing the mindset of a labourer or a social underdog can have a strong undermining effect.

Mari Käyhkö, a sociology lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland, suggests that a working-class background often involves experiences of feeling like an outsider and thoughts of inadequacy, insecurity, and impostorism.

Workplace inclusivity and appreciation towards diverse backgrounds should be seen as assets that create talented and unique value. That way, organisations can promote a sense of belonging and, consequently, psychological safety to mitigate the impostor phenomenon.

The role of gender and underrepresentation

While research on the impostor phenomenon started in the 1970s with a therapy group of high-achieving women, it now recognises the presence of impostor thoughts of varying intensity among all genders. Therefore, gender is not a direct cause of impostor thoughts, but belonging to a marginalised or underrepresented group can be.

Impostor thoughts are often associated with women and people of colour, but it is not as if women or POC would be somehow inherently more prone to impostorism;it’s the biased attitudes and misconduct that predispose to it.

A constant demand to prove one's right to a seat at the executive table is both draining and discouraging. The additional long hours of work caused by the impostor phenomenon add to this exhaustion and may even necessitate therapy to develop more sustainable working methods.

Underrepresentation and derogatory comments may lead to questioning one’s place in the work community. The narratives of my study revealed that for women, their gender and age are subjects of comments that may increase impostor thoughts. This, in turn, may create an additional barrier to career advances – on top of biases and discrimination.

Even comments meaning well may fuel impostor thoughts, and choice of words matters greatly. By commenting on colleague’s attributes, one might unintentionally cause them to question their position:

I sometimes feel like I get reminded about my age more than I would if I were a man of the same age. I get good and bad comments like "you're so young." It would be nice just to say that, well, this a perfectly normal age, and that's it. It is also strongly related to appearance. In the previous workplace, someone even said, "You look so young that it certainly affects how you are regarded here." When you get comments like that, you start questioning what you should be like and do you belong here.

Additionally, organisational culture entails many aspects that directly contribute to the impostor phenomenon. In my second article, I uncover the most crucial ones, touching on the role of organisations more closely.

Organisations enable the impostor phenomenon and need to step up

While there is a mountain of self-help guides and books for impostors to work through their harmful thought patterns, the role of organisations in the battle against the impostor phenomenon is rarely discussed. But why should the responsibility of eliminating the impostor phenomenon fall solely on the individual? After all, organisations play a massive role in fuelling it.

The organisation overlooking its responsibility follows the same pattern as mental health issues and exhausting work pace: they are left to be solved by the individual, when in reality, the source of the problem lies, in many cases, in the organisation and the work community and its practices. Shouldn’t the responsibility lie with the source?

To answer that question, my second article focuses on the responsibilities and possibilities organisations and the work community have in mitigating the impostor phenomenon.


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.