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How imposter syndrome threatens DEI and what you can do about it

How imposter syndrome threatens DEI and what you can do about it

DEI isn’t just about recruiting diverse team members from various backgrounds. We also need to create an environment that helps them thrive.

We’re used to looking for barriers to success within our organizations, but what about obstacles we can’t see?

Your fabulous new talent might be carrying those barriers within their mind.

Imposter syndrome prevents fantastic team members from fulfilling their potential. You can’t see it, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless to help.  

What is imposter syndrome?

As we all become more comfortable discussing mental health and emotional well-being in the workplace, we hear more and more about imposter syndrome. But what is it, and why does it matter?

Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon where you consistently feel that you’re out of your depth and don’t know what you’re doing. 

It’s coupled with a feeling of intense worry. You feel as if you’re the only one struggling. You believe you’re a fraud and need to keep your real (inadequate) self a secret.

Imposter syndrome can occur in any part of life, but it’s most common within the professional sphere. And it is surprisingly common.

Estimates vary, but some studies have shown up to 82% of us have thoughts aligned with imposter syndrome. These include:

  • Not being good enough
  • Worrying about being “found out”
  • Believing that others would reject us if they knew our doubts
  • Assuming that others achieve the same results with minimal effort
  • Feelings of unworthiness
  • Attributing success to luck or external factors

These feelings often lead to people pushing themselves harder to “prove themselves” and can quickly lead to burnout. Managers are often surprised to find that their star employees have been feeling like frauds for much or all of their careers.

Success doesn’t reduce imposter syndrome. In fact, it typically exacerbates it. The more praise, qualifications, and achievements an employee racks up, the more they worry about their imposter status being discovered.

Imposter syndrome is typically associated with feelings of shame and fear. Workers aren’t just afraid of being found out. They also worry that they’ll let their teams down.

📊 Some studies have shown up to 82% of us have thoughts aligned with imposter syndrome.

Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review

How imposter syndrome threatens DEI

Imposter syndrome is clearly unpleasant for those living with it, but there’s a bigger problem for companies. Feeling like a fraud in the workplace doesn’t affect all of our employees equally.

Employees from diverse backgrounds are already vulnerable to feelings of “otherness.” Being a trailblazer is inspiring, but it’s also exhausting. Imposter syndrome comes from that feeling of not belonging. 

If team members don’t see other people like them succeeding, it’s hard to convince themselves that they have earned their victories. Likewise, if they don’t see others holding positions of power, it can feel illegitimate to aim for that power themselves.

Imposter syndrome was first documented in 1978 in women who worked in academia. Women of color, in particular, report high levels of self-doubt and feeling like a fraud.

It’s tempting to assume that this is somehow a “women’s problem,” but it’s not. Instead, it’s a social problem. Women are consistently taken less seriously than men. They are second-guessed and questioned, and their achievements are diminished. 

Are we really surprised when they start to second-guess themselves?

Team members who feel like frauds are less likely to put themselves forward for promotions. They’re less confident putting forward their ideas, increasing their insecurity. If your exciting new diverse hire experiences imposter syndrome, they will never fulfill their potential.

🗯️ Feeling like a fraud in the workplace doesn’t affect all of our employees equally. Employees from diverse backgrounds are already vulnerable to feelings of “otherness.”

How you can help candidates and new hires battle imposter syndrome

Avoid armchair diagnosis

One of the simplest steps to battle imposter syndrome is to stop telling people they have it. However helpful you’re trying to be, no one enjoys being told that they don’t have an accurate view of themselves or their abilities.

Telling someone they have imposter syndrome leaves them feeling more isolated than ever. Instead, try to create a culture where everyone feels able to speak up and be themselves, mistakes and all.

Talk about the things you find challenging. Discuss your mistakes and how you’ve learned from them (and the times you had to make the same mistakes over and over before you learned). Show your teams that you’re human too.

Feeling uncertain and insecure isn’t something you need to diagnose. It’s normal. Make this something your teams can bond over rather than something that drives them apart.

Fix the underlying biases

Diverse hires are more prone to imposter syndrome because of bias within our society. Creating fairer, more equal workplaces can help rebuild some damaged confidence.

Diverse teams help new hires see themselves in a wide range of roles. This can be especially valuable when you have great diversity and representation at senior levels.

Encourage your diverse team members to speak up during meetings. This simple step can be a radical change for staff who are used to being ignored or overlooked.

Make sure to acknowledge your team members’ successes. Diverse employees often see their achievements overlooked or credit given to others. This fuels their imposter syndrome. Instead, show them that they are noticed and appreciated. 

Rethink your approach to hiring

Inclusive hiring is essential to creating a safe, supportive environment where all staff feel confident in their abilities, but only if they know, they’ve been hired on merit. This is where Headstart’s unique technology can be a game-changer.

Fairscreen allows you to look beyond the obvious and give your candidates the chance to show their true potential. Removing bias from your hiring process doesn’t just help you hire outstanding diverse talent. It also allows them to thrive.


➡️ Get in touch with Headstart for a demo to see the difference bias-free hiring can make. ⬅️

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