A vector image of a person standing in front of microphone excited and holding a trophy. Behind them, a shadow looks like it’s freaking out, symbolising imposter syndrome.
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Dealing with imposter syndrome after a promotion

16 Feb 2022

Getting a promotion in work should be a great confidence booster, but sometimes it can lead to self-doubt and negative imposter thoughts.

Imposter syndrome is an ongoing challenge for many people. It comes in several different forms and can often be associated with feeling like a fraud at work – like you are literally an imposter who is somehow in a position you shouldn’t be in and you’re waiting to be found out.

It’s important to note that this is not always a bad thing. We recently spoke to Basima Tewfik from the MIT Sloan School of Management about the positive side to the imposter syndrome phenomenon – mainly that those who suffer from it can have better interpersonal skills than their more confident co-workers.

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But while Tewfik wanted to highlight the potential benefits that can come with imposter syndrome, she still acknowledged that having “imposter thoughts lowers your self-esteem”. Imposter thoughts and low self-esteem can often go hand in hand, but it’s important to know the difference between the two, mainly the trajectory.

Often, the more successful you become and the higher up the career ladder you climb, the more likely imposter syndrome is to present itself. A promotion is one of the most common situations that can bring about a sudden wave of imposter syndrome, even if you hadn’t felt it up until that point.

Dr Mario Weick is a behavioural psychologist at Durham University in the UK. He said the new responsibilities that often come with a promotion can pose a challenge for employees.

“Assuming line management responsibilities for the first time can be particularly challenging, especially when there are larger teams involved,” he said.

“Managers are called upon when there are problems or emergencies. For newly minted managers, that often implies getting a baptism of fire.”

‘Insecurities can trigger aggression and toxic behaviour in leaders, which is a complete no-go’
– DR MARIO WEICK

Once these new responsibilities come into the fray, so too do new doubts, worries and feelings of inadequacy for many. Those who once had a manager to support them and ask questions to have now become that manager and suddenly they can feel lost at sea without a life jacket.

Whether the promotion comes in the form of a new role in a new company or from an internal position can also affect how imposter syndrome presents itself.

An internally promoted worker might worry they were simply in the right place at the right time, and that the promotion has nothing to do with merit.

On the other hand, someone starting somewhere new might worry about how little their new colleagues know about their abilities because they haven’t seen them in action before.

However, Weick said that imposter syndrome following a promotion is often short-lived. “Where imposterism persists, I recommend seeking support in the form of coaching or counselling.”

Leaders with imposter syndrome

While employees might feel confident about the more senior level of work that comes with a promotion, it also often comes with leadership or managerial responsibilities that they might not have had before.

“Sometimes leaders with imposter syndrome want social approval and try to be friends with everyone. That can interfere with their work and is not a recommended strategy,” said Weick.

“Other times, insecurities can trigger aggression and toxic behaviour in leaders, which is a complete no-go and should raise red flags.”

When an employee becomes a leader through promotion, it’s important that they get on with the members of their team, which can feel like an uphill battle.

Weick also said walking the line between management and the rest of the team can present challenges and lead to further insecurities.

“Leaders who line-manage staff are privy to confidential information that may affect their perception of colleagues,” he noted. “Finally, leaders may find it difficult to know where they stand. Are colleagues agreeable because they like you or because they want to ingratiate themselves?”

Tackling negative imposter thoughts

Even those in leadership positions are likely to have someone higher up that they report to and it’s important that they reach out to that senior figure when the negative side of imposter syndrome is taking over.

Weick said it’s important for those more senior leaders to ensure newly promoted leaders have the staff and resources they need to do their job and have a manageable workload.

For very senior leaders or even CEOs who struggle with imposter syndrome, they can reach out to other members of leadership, peers and other members of their community to talk through their thoughts.

Weick said that imposter thoughts can often be a barrier to promotions. But even for those who manage to get that promotion, those negative feelings can lead to you being afraid to make a mistake, speak up about an idea or ask for help, all of which can affect your performance at work.

While climbing the career ladder can often magnify negative feelings of imposter syndrome, it also gives you the opportunity to help those further down.

“When senior leaders speak openly about their own challenges and struggles, that creates an environment of trust,” said Weick. “Senior leaders can also put in place support in the form of training and mentoring.”

Whatever stage of your career you’re at, it’s important to remember that it’s OK not to know what you’re doing all the time and that you’re not alone with these feelings.

And for those very acute times when you genuinely feel that you don’t deserve the promotion you got, think about the people who gave you that promotion and whether or not you believe they have a good judge of character.

It is their job to know who the best person for a particular role is and it’s vital to remind yourself that they gave you the job for a reason.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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