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How Recruiters Can Help Great Candidates Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is the belief among professionals that their credentials or experience are insufficient for the job they’re in — and it’s only a matter of time before they’re found out. 

Tied to this is a sense of not belonging and of being an outsider. They’re waiting to be told: “You don’t deserve to be here.”

That’s why many highly skilled, qualified and experienced professionals are riddled with anxiety in much of their daily work when they needn’t be. And this has an impact on their work, and their integration with colleagues and the organization.

It’s worth pointing out that imposter syndrome is not really a syndrome. It’s better classified as a phenomenon brought on by a situation or context, explains Dr. Terri Simpkin, Australian academic and founder of Braver Smarter Stronger. The result is a feeling of “intellectual phoniness despite evidence to the contrary,” leading the person to seek validation, affirmation and compliments to stave off their feelings of not being good enough.

Below, we explore what imposter syndrome entails and how recruiters who understand this issue can help to select the best candidates.  

Imposter Syndrome Is Common

Imposter syndrome affects many people. Indeed, Jaruwan Sakulku writes in the International Journal of Behavioral Science that 70 percent of people will suffer from it in their lives.

Big names in their respective industries have also felt the pressure of imposter syndrome. Publisher Arianna Huffington has spoken about her feelings of not belonging and her fear of being exposed as a fraud despite her successes, Krista Gray at Business Insider says.

The term “imposter phenomenon” can be traced back to 1978, when U.S. researchers Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes highlighted the feeling of “not being up to the job” — which disproportionately plagued women in senior roles. 

Indeed, women still seem to be more affected by imposter syndrome than men. As UK-based writer and activist Natasha Devon MBE says: “We still live in a culture where the prototype for success and influence is white, male and middle aged. It’s no wonder, then, that the people most likely to experience imposter syndrome are young women.”

Imagine being hired as a columnist for Time and feeling wholly unable to write anything. And then spiralling into a pit of despair that your writing contract would be revoked. This is what happened to “Feminist Fight Club” author Jessica Bennett. But the irony, as Bennett points out, was that as she was feeling unable to write her column, she was also meant to be writing a book about imposter syndrome. 

Bennett calls imposter syndrome that “crippling sense of self-doubt that women often feel in the face of challenge, which in this case was the very thing that was making it impossible for me to complete the task at hand.” Bennett adds that while the term “imposter syndrome” was only coined in the 1970s, she’s certain women have been feeling this way forever.

Frustrated woman feeling despair sitting in shared office with laptop; imposter syndrome concept

Women in Tech Often Report Feeling Like Imposters

Tech jobs are dominated by men. According to Statista, women account for 20 percent of tech jobs at Microsoft, 29 percent at Apple and 21 percent at Google. 

The result is women in tech roles look around the workplace and see so few other women. This fuels a sense of not belonging. Being outnumbered and feeling underestimated are key triggers for imposter syndrome, says Mary Cavanaugh, VP and senior consultant at Keystone Associates.

Systemic biases don’t help. “We’re conditioned as women when we’re young to be polite,” Cavanaugh tells TechRepublic. “There’s just some of those things that you ‘act like a lady.’ It’s how we’re brought up. It’s just the socialization of us as women.”

One solution to this specific problem is to employ more women in tech. 

Another is for employers, team leaders, hiring managers and recruiters to, first, acknowledge the realities of inequality in the workforce and, second, understand how these can make talented people feel like imposters. Then, they can work together to create a space where all employees feel safe enough to share their views and opinions. That will then help reinforce a sense of belonging.

A Sense of Belonging Counteracts Imposter Syndrome 

When a candidate sees in the organization other people who look and sound like them, they will be more confident about the role. That’s what a feeling of belonging gives to people, says Valerie Young, author of “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.” 

The converse is true, too: If a candidate finds themselves in an environment where very few others look and sound like them, they might feel as if they don’t belong and that they’ve somehow defrauded someone to get where they are.

Young says it’s not just attributable to a person’s sense of inadequacies. Institutionalized discrimination can have a lingering impact on women and minority candidates. And overt stereotypes about competence based on race or gender can also be detrimental to people feeling as if they belong.

Employee excited about win, raising hands looking at laptop, coworking office team applauding; overcoming imposter syndrome concept

How to Reframe Imposter Syndrome in Candidate Conversations

Recruiters could add value to the imposter syndrome conversation by reframing those feelings as positive motivators. Indeed, this is what business coach Caroline Castrillon suggests as a viable means of mitigating imposter feelings. 

For instance, the sense of needing to work harder could point to the fact that a candidate is committed to development and growth. They’re willing to learn and improve. 

Castrillon says a little bit of imposter syndrome can also keep egos in check. The result is less arrogance or overconfidence and better-prepared candidates. 

Most important, Castrillon says, is to consider imposter syndrome as an inevitable result of becoming better at a role. She borrows from Aristotle: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Doubt increases with knowledge and expertise, she says.

Bringing a New Perspective

What do you do if you’re not an expert on a subject but are invited to discuss the topic with experts? You start with feeling like an imposter, says Barri Rafferty, CEO at global communications firm Ketchum. 

This is what Rafferty experienced when asked to speak at a World Economic Forum AI-themed event in Davos. Fellow presenters included an MIT Media Lab director and the CIO of IBM. “I’m not a technology expert, I didn’t go to an Ivy League School, and I didn’t literally write the book on A.I., as my counterparts did,” Rafferty says. 

But she brought a fresh perspective to the debate. By not being a tech expert, she could assess AI’s impact on industry more broadly. 

Recruiters should try to recognize this type of attitude in candidates. While a new recruit may lack the expertise of veteran colleagues, they could bring a unique perspective to an organization.

Encourage Trust in the Hiring Decision

Candidates need to know that recruiters and employers are making important decisions when they’re hiring someone new. They would not undertake such a process without due consideration, interviews, testing and appraisals. Indeed, as RECRUITERS Growth Editor Jenny Darmody says: Trust the decision of the people who hired you. 

Those who do the hiring are the people who best know what the organization needs. Candidates should feel confident they belong because of their selection. 

Additionally, AI-powered recruitment removes emotion from the hiring process. The candidates invited to an interview will be those the data suggests are best-equipped for the role. 

Foster a Learning Mindset

Team leaders can target the fear of failure that motivates imposter syndrome by promoting a learning mindset. 

Compared with a fixed mindset, in which people believe skills are innate, a learning mindset fosters an appetite to develop and an appreciation that failure is a part of this. A culture of learning can only exist when employees feel safe to fail, explains Ruma Mukherjee Batheja, head of OD and HR strategy at Knowledgetics.

Being able to admit that you don’t know something shows strength. It’s not grounds for feeling fraudulent. Leaders can maintain this “psychological safety net” by encouraging collaborative problem-solving, Batheja says.

Imposter syndrome is a serious issue for many professionals. Feelings of not belonging or being under-qualified hold employees back within their organizations and candidates from applying for new roles. Recruiters and hiring managers should be aware of this issue and work hard to help candidates see their value. AI-enabled hiring, which rely on effective hiring algorithms, can help to allay doubts by relying on an effective hiring. 

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