5 Hidden Business Costs Of Imposter Syndrome

The side effects of Imposter Syndrome aren’t just a cost to the individual who is struggling with it. The initial results from the 2019 Imposter Syndrome Research Study indicate that it could be costing businesses billions a year.

Here Are Five Hidden Costs Of Imposter Syndrome That Could Be Hitting Your Business’ Bottom Line:

1. How Imposter Syndrome trashes productivity and performance

An attack of Imposter Syndrome causes stress-thoughts which trigger the body’s fight-flight-freeze response.

This diverts blood flow from the brain’s frontal cortex, responsible for you being brilliant at your job, instead prioritising the primal part of your brain whose priority is stopping you from being munched by a sabre-toothed tiger. In conjunction with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin, this cycle makes it hard to concentrate and retain information. This affects productivity and performance.

The initial results from the 2019 Imposter Syndrome research study show that this leads to the 4 Ps of Imposter Syndrome:

Paralysis – where a task falls off the to do list every day, and the person works hard to hide this.

Procrastination – where someone puts off a task by keeping themselves stuck in ‘busyness’ – the less important minutiae that eat up time and energy, without producing corresponding results.

Perfectionism – setting impossibly high standards on both the quality of a project and the timing, but writing success off as ‘luck’ if they are actually achieved

People-Pleasing – saying yes, when it should be a ‘no’, so you can feel part of your tribe – like you ‘belong’

But these productivity and performance costs don’t just affect the person who is secretly struggling with Imposter Syndrome. These behaviours have a knock-on effect for team performance, too, as we’ll see in #2.

Hidden costs of Imposter Syndrome #1: Productivity & Performance - fight-flight-freeze response makes it hard to concentrate & retain information. And the 3Ps turn superstars into terrified wrecks. How is #impostersyndrome affecting your biz? Click To Tweet


2. How Imposter Syndrome can turn a superstar into a micro-managing bully-boss

There’s nothing quite like a comfort zone stretching promotion to turn a formerly brilliant team member into a micro-managing, bully-boss. Add in the 3Ps of workaholic perfectionism, procrastination and paralysis, and you’ve got a recipe for teamwork disaster.

A promotion requires us to make an identity-level shift: we need to change how we see ourselves as we step into a larger leadership role. For a few rounds of promotion, this will work fine. But there often comes a point where the rubber band of our comfort zone has been stretched slightly too far and it threatens to snap.

That’s when previously dormant Imposter Syndrome can become active.

The who am I to…? self-talk kicks in. What if they find me out? becomes our breakfast mantra. What if they find out I don’t belong here – that I’m a fake? is our constant companion on our daily commute.

They say that all criticism is borne of someone else’s pain. And this is one of the big challenges when a manager is secretly struggling with Imposter Syndrome. The fear, worry and anxiety they are trying to suppress gets subconsciously projected outwards, onto their team members. They can become volatile, irritable and impatient.

Add in a dose of maladaptive perfectionism and their deep-seated need to prevent mistakes can turn them into a control freak who micro-manages every aspect of their team members’ performance. They know that they are responsible for the results their team gets, so they’re terrified that someone else’s mistake could led to them being found out. This can create an environment with zero tolerance of mistakes, causing a formerly high-performing team to learn to become risk-averse, stifling creative thinking.

People become less likely to speak up with new ideas and the manager, themselves, is less likely to suggest the changes that might be desperately needed to keep the business in front of its competitors in an ever-changing world. The team becomes changes its behaviour to become defensive, in order to protect itself from criticism from the boss or from blame. Being told to develop a ‘growth mindset’ feels like facing a firing squad, because ‘growth’ requires permission to make mistakes and to learn.

Previously happy team members can even quit, to avoid this stress, all triggered by the manager’s Imposter Syndrome.

The hidden costs of #impostersyndrome #2: it can turn a superstar team member into a micro-managing bully-boss and trash their team's performance. Q: is Imposter Syndrome hitting your business' bottom line?Click To Tweet


3. Why it stalls professional & personal development

If someone is secretly scared of being found out as a fake – as not being good enough – and they are covering the trail of mistakes with maladaptive, workaholic perfectionism, there’s no way they are going to sit in their annual performance review and admit they have development needs. It makes someone much more likely to try to cover up their perceived faults – the ones that make them feel like a fraud – and to reject offers of training or coaching that could improve their performance.

But praise doesn’t work, either. One of the key traits of Imposter Syndrome is that it particularly affects those who are already outwardly successful and confident; it hits hard, despite there being external evidence that you’re doing well.

Why is that? Because it creates a distorted perception of our abilities and our performance. We’re so busy wiring those neural pathways with our self-critical inner dialogue that we’ve programmed our brain’s filters to dismiss any positive feedback that contradicts our view of how we see ourselves.

This is why positive feedback – either from a manager or in the form of affirmations – so rarely helps with Imposter Syndrome. Given that we see our entire success as being founded on fluke or luck or timing, we are not owning our own role in our success, so feedback won’t create performance improvements.

Those who are struggling with Imposter Syndrome are more likely to quit a project before they succeed, and to hide that fact from their manager, to avoid the risk of being found out. And they’re much less likely than others to speak up with brilliant ideas or to volunteer for opportunities that would give them a chance to shine – and stretch those comfort zones or even to get promoted, because this would carry a vastly increased risk of being ‘found out as a fake’.

This means their area of responsibility in the business stays stuck, playing safe.

This hidden costs of #impostersyndrome #3: it stalls personal & professional development. Q: what might Imposter Syndrome be costing your business? Click To Tweet


4. How Imposter syndrome leads to addictions and mental health issues & burnout

In times of stress and stretching comfort zones, this worry-based self-talk reigns supreme. I call it worry-based because it is often about things that have not yet happened. We are worrying about a future that we feel powerless to influence – and this is one of the keys with Imposter Syndrome. We give the power to ‘they’ and ‘them’.

What if they find me out?

What if they see I’m a fraud?

What if they figure out I don’t belong here?

We might be thinking about how last week’s presentation went or how next week’s client pitch might go, but where we’re putting our energy and attention is on our concerns about how others will react. We’re not lying in bed wondering how we can make the event go well or what we could learn from last week. We have given power over our self-worth, our sense of belonging and – ultimately – our happiness to forces outside of ourselves, over which we have little, if any, control.

These worry thoughts have been shown to lead to anxiety and even depression, especially if our self-worth is taking a nightly knock.

People often try to drown out the pain of Imposter Syndrome through distractions and addictions. The distractions allow us to avoid completing projects, therefore meaning we can’t be judged and found lacking.

Escaping into social media, where it’s easy to lose hours without noticing, gives us space from our inner talk, giving us the excuse not to have to take the actions that are secretly scaring us. It sets us free from the silence that would otherwise force us to listen to our thoughts.

And that escapism can turn into addictions, whether it’s to sugar or social media, alcohol or online shopping, being a gym bunny or taking out shares in your local doughnut shop. We start to crave the dopamine hit that makes us feel that tiny bit better about ourselves.

The hidden costs of #impostersyndrome in your business #4: addictions, #mentalhealth issues & #burnout. What might Imposter Syndrome be costing your business?Click To Tweet


5. Could Imposter Syndrome be the real cause of the glass ceiling and the gender pay gap

The gender pay gap isn’t just down to historical discrimination or gender bias.

The 2019 Imposter Syndrome research study shows that both men and women can struggle with Imposter Syndrome, but they handle it differently. Men tend to knuckle down and push on through. They often shut down their emotions as a coping mechanism and take the actions that are needed, despite the fear. (Note: this is not necessarily a healthy response).

Imposter Syndrome makes women more likely to overthink their ‘who am I to’ fears and to choose not to themselves forwards for opportunities that would allow them to shine, in order to avoid the fear of being found out as not being good enough to belong in that kind of role.

In response to praise, they are more likely than men to try to share the achievement as part of being their team’s effort, rather than ‘owning’ what they themselves achieved. This is particularly so in the UK, where there is a stronger culture of modesty than in, say, the USA, and women don’t want to be seen as bragging.

The study has also shown that over 40% of women in senior positions have consciously chosen not to ask for a pay rise or promotion that they knew they deserved, because of Imposter Syndrome.

This is why positive discrimination will never achieve the quotas we are looking for in boardrooms or close the gender pay gap – because women will continue to play it small and quiet, compared to their male peers. We have subconsciously used it to build our very own glass ceilings.

Hidden costs of #impostersyndrome #5: it's why we'll never close the #genderpaygap or achieve our management-level diversity targets. Click To Tweet


The Real Problem With Imposter Syndrome

Despite all of these bottom-line costs, most businesses have a culture where talking about Imposter Syndrome is taboo – or even seen as a sign of weakness – and they have no strategy or training to deal with it.

And if you’re a solopreneur – setting up your own business – my research – and the past fifteen years of mentoring business leaders and entrepreneurs on this – show that Imposter Syndrome is the single biggest reason why a business with a potentially successful business plan will still fail.

Yet Imposter Syndrome isn’t hard to handle, once we stop pretending it’s not there or believing that a bit of positive thinking and mindset work will fix it.

In fact, there are things you can do as an emergency quick fix for Imposter Syndrome in under sixty seconds.


I’d love to hear from you:

What might Imposter Syndrome be costing your business?

And what could you do to create a culture where speaking up about it is no longer taboo?

And if you’d like to know more about how to handle Imposter Syndrome in your business, I have spent the past fifteen years leading training and mentoring for business leaders and entrepreneurs on how to spot the hidden warning signs, before someone shuts down or self-sabotages, and how to support them in regaining their confidence, without feeling like a fraud.

I guide you through how to do this, step by step, in my book Ditching Imposter Syndrome. And if you’d like to chat about how I could help your business to stop Imposter Syndrome from hitting its bottom line, here’s where you can get in touch.



About the author

Clare Josa

Clare is considered a global authority in the fields of Imposter Syndrome, burnout and toxic resilience, and has been an international keynote speaker for over 20 years.

The author of 8 books, a reformed engineer and the former Head of Market Research for one of the world's most disruptive brands, she blends research-backed practical inspiration with demystified ancient wisdom, to help you create breakthroughs in ways that are fast, fun and forever.

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