The Link Between Imposter Syndrome and Bias

The Link Between Imposter Syndrome and Bias

Our latest research reveals how bias awareness can help you overcome imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome describes the experience of having persistent feelings of inadequacy despite evident success. While it is not restricted to the workplace, it does greatly impact an individual’s experience at work and can really hold someone back from progressing in their career.

Take Julie, for example. Julie is a senior leader who is well liked in her organisation and has won high-profile awards in her field of expertise. She was recently offered a promotion after extremely positive feedback on a project she led.

Her colleagues were surprised when she turned the promotion down. They may have been even more surprised if they could hear her internal thoughts: “I don’t deserve this promotion and if I take it, I’ll be found out. Everyone will see that I’m in over my head and I’ve just been lucky so far. I need to prove myself more before I take a promotion and a salary increase.”

Sound familiar? While we all have feelings of self-doubt from time to time, persistent feelings of “not being good enough” can be so strong that they keep us from fulfilling our full potential.

Zircon’s latest research has identified a link between imposter syndrome and bias. Nine biases were identified which contribute to feelings of being an imposter in the workplace. The good news is that by being aware of one’s biases, an individual prone to imposter syndrome can come up with coping strategies to overcome them and fight off the feelings of inadequacy.

What is bias?

According to the American Psychology Association (2023), a bias is “an inclination or predisposition for or against something”. This suggests that bias is based on personal opinion and not so much on facts; if an object/individual or concept doesn’t fit into a group pattern or dynamic, then those within the group will start to develop a bias.

In short: Biases impact how people make decisions and interfere with how people think.

Why do we have bias?

Bias stems from group mentality and hierarchy. We tend to forge our views from a young age and they are usually built on top of external beliefs. They are reinforced by outcomes: if you have regular success in a certain process this will become a go-to solution in the future.
In addition, as humans have a limited span of attention, we tend to opt for ‘mental shortcuts’ (Cherry, 2022), which are often led by bias.

What purpose does it serve?

Our brains are wired to use mental shortcuts like biases to make quick decisions and reduce perceived risk. In its simplest form, bias is simply a matter of how we choose to respond when compared to other choices. Our views and actions are guided by our beliefs or the beliefs of those who are close to us. With so much information and choice in the world, we find a way of making sense of these by leaning towards an area of comfort and understanding, especially when considering the near future (Dougherty, 2015).

Bias is not inherently good or bad, and in fact sometimes bias is helpful and vital to survival and success. For example, preferring and choosing to eat healthy foods over unhealthy foods may contribute to a longer life and more positive health outcomes. Nevertheless, some biases do have negative impact. A harmful bias like discriminatory behaviour can occur when we encounter something that does not line up with what we like or do.

Some examples of biases:

  1. Anchoring effect: relying too much on the initial piece of information.
  2. Bandwagon effect: the more that others uptake beliefs, the more likely those beliefs are to be adopted.
  3. Status quo bias: preference towards staying the same way as opposed to engaging in change.
  4. Confirmation bias: only paying attention to information that confirms pre-existing views.

The link between bias and imposter syndrome

Zircon’s research has found a causal link between bias and imposter syndrome. We have certain biases that, if left unchecked, can lead to persistent feelings of inadequacy and drive more behaviours that reinforce these beliefs – a vicious cycle.

Often a person is deceiving themselves because they view their abilities through the lens of bias – they do not believe that they have the capability to succeed; instead, like Julie who turned down a promotion, they believe that luck or external factors got them there, and they fear being “found out” or failing.

In a work context, imposter syndrome can be triggered by a wide range of factors (Leonard & Litner 2020):

  1. Self-doubt is probably the biggest trigger of imposter syndrome; the feeling of not being good enough for a particular role, fear of failure or being discovered and how it may affect the rest of the team, etc.
  2. Upon joining a business, one may not feel qualified enough to take on the responsibilities of a job but will continue to do so as it is work.?
    When observing others’ work, people may feel that their colleagues may expect more from them than they can manage.
  3. If there is a fluctuation in the changes of jobs within the business, people may have a fear of failure and thus try to avoid a promotion or change in work.
  4. The fear of increasing workload may cause people to focus more on limited tasks; people may view extra responsibilities as a distraction from performing well on current tasks.

Overcoming imposter syndrome

Just being aware of the biases we have that contribute to imposter syndrome is a good first step in overcoming those feelings of inadequacy. By recognising these biases you can come up with strategies to challenge them. Zircon’s research has also found that improving one’s resilience can help overcome imposter syndrome.

If you would like to learn more about Imposter Syndrome in and out of the workplace and hear more about Zircon’s latest research in this area, listen to episode 27 “Imposter Syndrome” of The Chief Psychology Officer podcast, which can be found here: www.thecpo.co.uk.

For a limited time only, we also invite our readers to take our new BeTalent Imposter Syndrome questionnaire for free. It takes approx. 10-15 minutes to complete and we will send you a free summary report in exchange for your time. Simply email hello@betalent.com with the subject line “Imposter Syndrome” and ask to be registered for the Imposter Syndrome questionnaire.

References

Imposter Syndrome. Episode 27. The Chief Psychology Officer podcast. https://www.thecpo.co.uk/  

American Psychology Association Dictionary (2023). Definition of bias. 
 
Cherry, K. (2022). List of Common Cognitive Biases. https://www.verywellmind.com/cognitive-biases-distort-thinking-2794763 
 

 

First Published: 15th February 2024

Last Updated: 25th March 2024

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