A 3D white cube on a blue background. One side shows a happy yellow emoticon, while the other side shows a sad blue emoticon to symbolise imposter syndrome.
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Is there a positive side to having imposter syndrome?

28 Jan 2022

We often try to fight against imposter syndrome to prevent it from holding us back. But could a little bit of it actually be a good thing?

Imposter syndrome can be extremely limiting for people if it’s let to run loose in their heads.

It’s often described as feeling like an imposter in your job and you’re just waiting to be found out. This lack of confidence can sometimes hold people back from future success.

But while imposter syndrome could hinder your career, those who are prone to it can actually take some positives from it too.

Last year, Basima Tewfik from the MIT Sloan School of Management published a study in The Academy of Management Journal, which found that employees who suffer from imposter syndrome have better interpersonal skills than their more confident co-workers.

Through this research, she sought to “rebalance the existing conversation” around imposter syndrome by highlighting the benefits it can bring.

Better interpersonal skills

Tewfik told SiliconRepublic.com that there are a few reasons why imposter syndrome gets such a bad reputation.

“First, people tend to describe it using phrases like ‘feelings of phoniness’ or ‘fear of being exposed’, which evoke negative sentiments. Furthermore, the word ‘imposter’ itself has negative connotations,” she said.

“But the thing is, the imposter phenomenon was initially centrally defined as the ‘belief that other people think you’re smarter than you think you are’, not the fears we ascribe to it today. Moreover, the scholars who first coined it remarked that it inherently wasn’t a bad thing.”

Tewfik has studied the imposter phenomenon over the last seven years across a range of organisations and occupations. Through this research, she found that people who have what she describes as imposter thoughts are those who are seen to be “more interpersonally effective at work”.

“Doctors who more frequently have imposter thoughts are rated by their patients as being better at eliciting information from others. Employees who more frequently have imposter thoughts are seen by their managers as better collaborators,” she said.

“I find that this is because those who more frequently have imposter thoughts are also those who seem to take on an other-focused orientation in their interactions. For example, they nod and make better eye contact. They ask more questions.”

‘It’s important to recognise that it is a complicated phenomenon’

She added that the results may not be that surprising, given how imposter syndrome can change people’s focus.

“To have imposter thoughts, to get a sense of what other people might think of you compared to what you think of yourself, you have to be paying attention to others!”

As part of her research, Tewfik also looked into whether or not this increase in interpersonal skills came the expense of competence-related outcomes, but she did not find this to be the case.

“Even though I don’t find competence-related downsides, I do find that having workplace imposter thoughts lowers your self-esteem. This is important to keep in mind because it means that the takeaway of this research needs to be nuanced. It can’t be ‘foster your imposter thoughts’,” she said.

“Instead, I would say: ‘Use this research citing that such thoughts may have interpersonal benefits to help reappraise the experience and down-regulate negative feelings.’ Ultimately, it’s important to recognise that it is a complicated phenomenon.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. 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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