Many of us are familiar with imposter syndrome: feelings of doubt about our skills and intelligence, and a sense that we're going to get exposed as frauds at any moment. It can be a debilitating mental condition, but new research has found a positive angle.
It turns out that people with imposter syndrome are more likely to be good team players with strong social skills in the workplace, according to an analysis of 3,603 employees across four different studies and experiments.
Those attractive attributes are recognized by bosses too, the research shows. It seems there's something about that feeling of inadequacy that makes people try extra hard with the colleagues and clients they have around them.
"People who have workplace impostor thoughts become more other-oriented as a result of having these thoughts," says behavioral psychologist Basima Tewfik from MIT.
"As they become more other-oriented, they get evaluated as being higher in interpersonal effectiveness."
However, this upside in terms of interpersonal skills does not come at the expense of productivity in the office, the research shows. In one group of employees at an investment firm, those with more imposter-type thoughts were also rated as more effective in colleague interactions, with no negative impact on work rate.
Another part of the research involved interviewing trainees in a physician training program. Those who said they had thoughts similar to imposter syndrome more often were also those who tended to have better relationships with patients.
Patient ratings for those who internally felt some kind of imposter syndrome ranked these physicians as being more empathetic, better at listening, and better at getting information from patients.
Based on these results, workplace imposter thoughts seem to lead to compensatory mechanisms, but Tewfik doesn't want to downplay the damage that imposter syndrome can do to mental health.
The new study also shows that the condition can lower people's self-esteem, so it's not as if these feelings of being a fraud should suddenly be encouraged by managers.
"I found a positive net outcome, but there might be scenarios where you don't find that," says Tewfik. "If you're working somewhere where you don't have interpersonal interaction, it might be pretty bad if you have impostor thoughts."
The data gathered by Tewfik also suggests that imposter syndrome thoughts aren't necessarily a permanent fixture. As people become more established in whatever their positions are, they can in some cases become less concerned at getting 'found out'.
Imposter syndrome was first identified in 1978, by the psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Right from the start, it was noted that those with this sense of "intellectual phoniness" also exhibited high levels of social skills.
In the new study, Tewfik suggests that the nature of what counts as workplace-related imposter thoughts may need to be reconsidered. Further studies are planned, looking at how imposter syndrome might relate to other areas of work, including creativity and proactivity.
"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," says Tewfik.
The research has been published in the Academy of Management Journal.