Imposter syndrome – not to be confused with the other syndrome that occasionally goes by that name – is kind of like the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger effect. With imposter syndrome, you really are brilliant, but only other people can see it.
As you might imagine, that can cause problems in the day-to-day lives of those who have it. To them, work, or school, or their weekly model airplane construction class down at the Y, is filled with anxiety – will today be the day everyone finally realizes how useless they are? What if this time, someone asks them a question they can’t bluff and luck their way out of? What if they get found out?
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But a new paper, published in the Academy of Management Journal, has some good news: it turns out, there’s a bright side to constantly feeling like you’re a fraud who doesn’t deserve the praise people keep, for some reason, heaping upon you.
“People who have workplace impostor thoughts become more other-oriented as a result of having these thoughts,” explained study author Basima Tewfik. “As they become more other-oriented, they get evaluated as being higher in interpersonal effectiveness.”
In other words, Tewfik said, people with imposter syndrome can often try to compensate for what they see as their shortcomings by working hard to be a good team player with strong social skills. And it pays off – across multiple workplaces and industries, Tewfik found that supervisors consistently rated employees with imposter syndrome as working better with colleagues and the public, with no negative effects on their performance.
“I did find this positive relationship,” said Tewfik. “For those having impostor thoughts at [the beginning of the time period], two months later their supervisors rated them as more interpersonally effective.”
So, what makes these low-self-esteem laborers so good at people skills? One experiment in the study holds some answers: Tewfik investigated a physician training program and found some specific differences in how doctors-to-be communicated with patients.
“What I found is again this positive relationship, those physicians in training [with more impostor thoughts] were rated by their patients as more interpersonally effective, they were more empathetic, they listened better, and they elicited information well,” Tewfik noted.
“[They] were also the ones who exhibited greater eye gaze, more open hand gestures, and more nodding,” she explained, “and this essentially explains why patients were giving them higher interpersonal effectiveness ratings.”
In short, the whole story of imposter syndrome “may not be what we’ve have originally conceptualized,” Tewfik said – and in fact, it may well have some unexpected benefits. What’s more, she found that imposter syndrome doesn’t have to be a permanent affliction – as sufferers grew more established in their positions, they were often able to shake off the feeling that they didn’t belong there.
Nevertheless, Tewfik makes it clear that these results don’t mean imposter syndrome is a good thing: “What I don’t want people to take away is the idea that because people with impostor thoughts are more interpersonally effective, it’s not a problem,” she said. That’s especially true for people in jobs without a group dynamic, she explained, where “you don’t have interpersonal interaction, [and] it might be pretty bad if you have impostor thoughts.”
Tewfik hopes to push these findings further, and investigate the interaction of imposter syndrome on other workplace personality traits like creativity and proactivity. For now, though, anybody out there worried that they’re bound to get found out as a fraud any day now – relax. It turns out, you may be the one holding the whole team together.
“I hope this paper will spur a broader conversation around this phenomenon,” Tewfik said. “My hope is really that other scholars join this conversation. It’s an area that is ripe for a lot of future research.”