Imposter syndrome, as the syndrome label denotes, is a chronic condition that, if you struggle with it, is generally an obstacle in your life on a consistent basis. While imposter syndrome has become a common label among high achievers and certainly sounds disruptive, I have recently come across some new research and perspective that there are some surprising benefits to imposter syndrome, or rather, to imposter thoughts. The distinction between imposter syndrome and imposter thoughts is an important one, since anything in excess may become a problem, syndrome, or saboteur in your work and life.
I wrote an article in 2017 outlining some ways to overcome imposter syndrome, where I asserted that imposter syndrome is counter-productive, unhealthy, and self-sabotaging, which I still hold to be true in many contexts. The new perspective I take in this article is meant to encourage a rethinking of what feeling like an imposter means and take a look at when it may be useful and when it may be detrimental. As with most conversations in the leadership development space, the topic is not black and white or simple. Imposter syndrome looks more like the color grey, and considering context and balance are a must.
The Research on the Benefits of Imposter Syndrome
Assistant Professor of Work and Organizational Studies at MIT Sloan School of Management, Basima Tewfik, has been studying the double edge sword of imposter syndrome for years. In her research, she found that imposter syndrome – as most people experience it – is not a syndrome, does not actually do harm to your task performance, and it can make you more compassionate to those you work with. She did a study with physicians that found that doctors who experienced imposter thoughts diagnosed patients and prescribed treatment plans in the same ways as doctors who did not experience imposter thoughts – meaning their competence for the work was equal. However, the doctors who felt like a fraud scored much higher in interpersonal interaction, active listening, and empathy by those who observed them working and those they treated.
Similar results were found in studies Tewfik led at investment companies and with ROTC cadets. While the cons of experiencing fear and its repercussions were present, so were the pros of creating stronger interpersonal skills and motivation to excel at work.
Imposter Syndrome Vs. Imposter Thoughts
The distinction needs to be highlighted here that not all imposter thoughts are created equal.
According to organizational psychologist Adam Grant in his book, Think Again (which covers this topic with a wonderful blend of storytelling and research) surveys suggest that more than half of people experience imposter thoughts sometime during their careers. Those affected are disproportionally women, minorities, and high achievers. This is the more common version of imposter syndrome – people who have felt like a fraud at times in their career, but do not necessarily suffer from feeling like a fraud on a regular basis.
Experiencing imposter syndrome however, is a very different thing – it is when you experience imposter thoughts in a chronic, debilitating way. You have a constant voice following you around, trying to convince you that you are unworthy. This can hold you back from trying to accomplish anything ambitious. Tewfik’s research found that while imposter syndrome in the chronic sense is rare, imposter thoughts are quite common
Imposter thoughts happen when competence surpasses confidence in some domains of your work. If your competence exceeds your confidence consistently and pervasively in all areas of your work, this is likely imposter syndrome. Grant said, “In theory competence and confidence go hand in hand. In practice, they often diverge.” The key is to find the balance between the two.
When Confidence Exceeds Competence
This article is not intended to encourage you to inappropriately inflate your confidence. What happens when you tilt to the other extreme, where confidence exceeds competence? This is called the Dunning Kruger Effect, or sometimes is referred to as Armchair Quarterback Syndrome.
The Dunning Kruger effect is when you don’t know what you don’t know, in other words, when you have an inflated assessment of your actual skills. The story told in this article offers a humorous account of this in practice. David Dunning, a Cornel psychology professor and his student Justin Kruger, did a series of studies that demonstrated the effect – they found that those who scored in the bottom 12% on assessments of logic, grammar, and humor believed they did better than 62% of their peers. The phenomenon has been replicated many times over the years among different types of people – gun owners who knew the least about firearm safety were the same ones who scored themselves the highest, the worst drivers are the ones who think they are the best, and the list goes on. Armchair Quarterback Syndrome was a spinoff of this effect, when a fan berates coaches and players on the field thinking they know better how to play the game, when they have the least skill or knowledge – the loudest critics are more likely to be the least knowledgeable.
Dunning and Kruger described this phenomenon as “Unskilled and unaware of it,” and it shows up in every workplace. The problem with this extreme overconfidence is that it leads someone who is unwilling to look at their blinds spots, unable to develop self-awareness, and ignorant to their need to improve their skills. Plus, overconfidence can make you complacent. Grant identified an even bigger problem with this when he said, “When we lack the knowledge and skills to achieve excellence, we sometimes lack the knowledge and skills to judge excellence.” The leaders who cannot assess competence – their own and that of their employees – are the bosses that people hate to work for. These are the leaders who wreak havoc on organizational culture and create unnecessary turnover.
So you can be someone blind to your weaknesses – who acts like you know a lot about something for which you do not, or you can be someone blind to your strengths – who acts like you do not know anything about something in which you are an expert. Which do you choose: Armchair Expert Syndrome or Imposter Syndrome? Where is the right balance?
I love this chart illustrating the two extremes, which is literally a photo I snapped from Grant’s Think Again since I could not find the digital version.
The 5 Surprising Benefits of Imposter Syndrome
When you are able to strike the right balance of competence and confidence, you end up leading with humility, curiosity, and awareness. Imposter thoughts can keep you on your toes and performing at your highest potential, shield you from the overconfidence that comes from the Dunning Kruger Effect, and help you gain self-awareness. When you are able to find this balance between the paradoxes of self-doubt and confidence, you get to experience the surprising benefits of imposter syndrome. Here are five notable benefits.
Stronger Decision-Making Abilities
Some research says that if you have imposter thoughts, you are able to make smarter decisions because you are willing to question yourself and do additional research to gather more data before making a decision. The self-doubt helps you slow down your decision-making process, and you will be more likely to test your gut rather than make a rash decision based on hunch.
*In Excess: This is helpful to a certain extent; when you notice it paralyzes your ability to make a decision, it can be counter productive.
Ambitious Work Ethic
If you experience imposter thoughts, you are more likely to work harder than those who do not, to prove your worth.
*In Excess: It can lead to burnout.
Curiosity, Open-Mindedness, Mental Flexibility
When you doubt and question yourself, you tend to be more curious and open to new information. When you are more open to shift your mindset, more open to being wrong, and more open to uncovering the strengths and weaknesses you have, you are more apt to find a better solution in the end rather than getting stuck on your first perspective.
*In Excess: I’m not aware if there is a solid drawback of having excess curiosity and open-mindedness, although perhaps it can lead to boundary issues or lack of productivity and focus if you don’t know where to draw the line.
This is what Grant describes as being assertive about what you know yet also willing to acknowledge what you don’t. This is a blend of the self-doubt that encourages you to ask the right questions and take a look at your blind spots, and confidence that invites you to fully embrace and tap into the strengths you have that serve the situation you are in.
*In Excess: An excess of confidence can come off as arrogant and close-minded, and can make you complacent. An excess of humility can come off as insecure.
Empathy and Compassion
When you experience self-doubt, you see how others struggle with similar thoughts. And remember Tewfik’s research suggests that imposter thoughts leads to increased capacity for interpersonal interaction, active listening, and empathy.
*In Excess: This one is about balance rather than excess. Empathy and compassion must be held in high regard alongside productivity and excellence in order to drive results. You can’t sacrifice high standards of performance for empathy and compassion, or vice versa.
Striking the Right Balance
Because being on either side of extremes tends to be destructive, it is a good idea to find your sweet spot between arrogance and self-doubt. How do you strike the right balance and lead with an awareness of both your weaknesses and your strengths? Here are three steps you can take.
Learn Where You Stand on the Imposter Scale
The “right amount of imposter thoughts” to achieve the benefits and avoid being crippled by the cons is hard to quantify. Ask yourself some questions to try to gauge where you stand on the scale:
- Does your inner voice sound like a journalist or scientist trying to uncover the truth, asking: “What might I have wrong here?”
- Does your inner voice sound like a constant critic, yelling at you, “You’re always wrong!”?
- Does your self-doubt slow down your decisions in a helpful way, so as inviting you to make better decisions?
- Does your self-doubt paralyze you and prevent you from making decisions?
- Do you productively gather constructive feedback, with the goal of continuous improvement?
- Do you respond to constructive feedback by scolding yourself for not being perfect?
- Does your self-doubt have the flavor of curiosity and lightness?
- Do you often beat yourself up for not being good enough?
The more YES’s you responded to the even numbered questions, the more signs point to you experiencing imposter syndrome, while the more YES’s you responded to the odd numbered questions, the more signs point to you having a healthy amount of imposter thoughts.
Consider the Context
Not everyone who has imposter thoughts will get to reap the rewards of these benefits all the time. It is possible to have imposter syndrome in one situation or domain of your life and confidence in another, or a healthy level of self-doubt in one area of your work and an unhealthy level in another. So it is not just about having the best level of imposter thoughts to fuel your motivation, it is also being able to recognize when they are helpful and when they are harmful.
Tune into the nuances of each scenario you notice your imposter thoughts surface and ask yourself: Are these thoughts helpful? If they are, they will push you in the direction of continuous improvement. If they are not at a healthy level, they end up sabotaging you. When you learn to appropriately discern when, where, and with whom humility is more productive and when, where, and with whom confidence is more helpful, you can slowly learn to dial these capacities up or down according to context, and you will take your leadership skills to the next level.
Separate Your Past Self-Image From Your Present Self-Image
When you are new to a job or a novice at anything, by definition, you are at the beginning of a learning journey and inexperienced. Given this lack of experience, you may feel like a fraud at this early stage of your career. But even if you were a novice or a fraud at the beginning of your career, it doesn’t mean you always will be. As you progress in your role and career, if you have imposter tendencies, you may hold onto that previous image of yourself as the inexperienced novice, and bring it with you as you progress in your career – even as it gets further and further from the truth. Even as you earn advanced degrees, promotions, and credibility in whatever field you are in.
If you have a tendency toward imposter syndrome or imposter thoughts, check in with yourself each year to reassess your competence and ground that assessment in the evidence that supports your actual credibility, not the voice in your head that thinks you are a still a novice. Because confidence can rise faster or slower than your competence and experience, it is a healthy practice to take an honest look at whether or not yours appropriately align.
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