Impostor Phenomenon

Where Do I Belong? How Impostor Phenomenon can Affect Career Planning and Decision Making

It is safe to argue that a company’s talent makes up an integral part of any organization. Without a strong workforce tasks fail to be completed, organizational culture may fail to flourish, and the company, overall, will suffer. The best ways to ensure that a company’s talent remains up to par are to develop current employees, and to attract and select new talent that can promote growth and stability for the organization. Both of these options involve planning or action on the end of the employee. However, what if you were to find out there was a condition that significantly impacted individuals’ abilities to plan their careers and make career-relevant decisions? Further, what if you learned that this condition affected at least 70% of your current and potential workforce at some time during their careers (Neureiter & Traut-Mattausch, 2016)? Introduce the impostor phenomenon.

Impostor phenomenon describes an “internal experience of intellectual and professional incapability despite objective evidence to the contrary” (Clance & Imes, 1978). In laymen’s terms, impostor phenomenon makes it difficult for individuals to attribute their successes as personal achievements, causing an irrational fear of being exposed as a fraud. Impostor phenomenon has been shown to have a negative impact on several organizational areas, including job satisfaction and organizational citizenship behaviors. (Organizational citizenship behavior is when an individual completes tasks above and beyond their job description that benefit the organization) (Vergauwe et al., 2015).

Recently, links between impostor phenomenon and career planning have been established. Essentially, those experiencing higher levels of impostor phenomenon are more concerned with staying safe in their current environment, and therefore are not giving much thought towards planning for the future. Because of this present-oriented focus, career planning takes a backseat. Highly competent employees are not pursuing the career moves that could prove extremely beneficial for themselves and for their company. These individuals who have a history of high achievement may be remaining stationary in an organization, rather than moving up to have a stronger influence and contribution.

The one known combatant of impostor phenomenon feelings is perceived social support. When an impostor phenomenon inflicted individual feels he or she is receiving high levels of social support, then the negative effects on organizational citizenship behaviors and job satisfaction diminish. There is a trade-off, however. When social support is high, afflicted individuals continue to downplay their successes and achievements to avoid being promoted away from their support system, as well as to avoid prompting feelings of resentment from co-workers.

Traditionally, career-decision making falls into two broad categories of rational or intuitive processes. Rational decision-making follows logic and objectivity, while intuitive decision-making is geared by instincts and gut feelings. Given the very definition of impostor phenomenon as the inability to accurately rationalize personal success, it is likely that individuals with impostor phenomenon would take an intuitive route to career planning. More specifically, they would likely follow a route that adheres to social expectations, given their desire for high levels of social support. Depending on how this is handled, this could be viewed as a positive or a negative for employers. If left to their own devices, individuals with impostor phenomenon will likely make career choices that keep them close to their current social support system, which may not be the best option for the employee or the company.

There are ways, however, for employers and managers to use this buffer of social support to their advantage, mainly by creating a new path of social support for employees.

  •  Neureiter and Traut-Mattausch (2016) suggest the creation of networking programs or supervision groups so that employees have a safe space to communicate with others about their experiences and feelings about their job.
  • Individual coaching programs are another solution to this problem. These sessions could focus on reducing the misplaced fears caused by impostor phenomenon, and on boosting self-esteem.

In both scenarios, new paths of social support are being built that link the afflicted individual with new co-workers at different levels and departments of the organization. Along with the intended reduction of impostor phenomenon feelings, this makes it easier for employees to feel safe moving to different areas of a company, or to different positions, since they now have support in multiple areas.

Employers should take a proactive approach when handling cases of employees with impostor phenomenon. Keeping an eye out for individuals that display potential and talent, but who may not outwardly boast about it, is important for discerning potential impostor phenomenon impacted individuals. When these individuals are identified, they should be reached out to about their achievements.  Consider introducing them to other employees at various levels or departments throughout the organization for which the identified individual may be a good fit.

This gradual build of a dispersed social support system should enable the person with impostor phenomenon to feel safe at different positions in a company, allowing them to turn to a focus on career planning. When asking themselves “Where do I belong?” now they can envision a plethora of new roles and positions that promote the well-being and success not only for themselves, but also for their company.


Clance, P. R., and Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women:         Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and             Practice. 15, 341-247.

Neureiter, M., & Traut-Mattausch, E. (2016). An inner barrier to career development:       Preconditions of the impostor phenomenon and consequences of career development.     Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1-15.

Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Feys, M., De Fruyt, F., & Anseel, F. (2015). Fear of being exposed: The trait-relatedness of the impostor phenomenon and its relevance in the work context.      Journal of Business and Psychology, 30, 565-581.