When Basima Tewfik was 22, she was a management consultant assigned to work with a consumer products company in Amsterdam. She was new to the business world, new to consulting, new to having a big-deal job.
And she was being introduced to her clients as a Harvard graduate. “I realized when I was interacting with them that they thought I was a post-MBA or something larger than life,” says Tewfik. “They were like, ‘Oh, she must be really smart. She must have very specific insights as to our problems.’”
It made her feel strange. And then she realized the problem: “They might think I’m smarter than I think I am.” Was she an imposter?
Lots of people — perhaps more than 80 percent of us, according to The American Psychological Association — have wrestled with that question. But those sorts of self-doubts can be difficult to talk openly about. What if you’re really not smart enough? What if people look down on you for feeling this way? Does it reveal weakness?
Now, about a dozen years later, Tewfik is an expert on what she calls “the imposter phenomenon” — which has long been known as “imposter syndrome.” It’s the feeling that people overestimate you, that the gap between how competent other people think you are and your actual level of competence is big — and scary.
And it’s a feeling that even some of the world’s most brilliant minds have been plagued by. “The exaggerated esteem in which my life work is held makes me very ill at ease,” Albert Einstein once confessed. “I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
Tewfik, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, started studying the phenomenon after comparing notes with many others — including those in managerial roles — and realizing: “A lot of really smart, talented people experience this. And so are we actually having an incorrect view on this phenomenon?”
Indeed, her research finds the imposter phenomenon may have a significant upside. It may make you better at interacting with other people, which, in turn, could make you more effective at your job — an outcome that has never before been identified.
Tewfik’s work contradicts decades of assumptions that the imposter phenomenon is something to be suppressed or overcome, and that it’s unequivocally negative, resulting in little more than decreased self-esteem and increased stress.
In a series of experiments, Tewfik tested workers in various sectors — from physicians-in-training to employees at an investment advisory firm — to see how those with “imposter phenomenon” thoughts conducted themselves on the job. Turns out, they seemed to focus more on other people — colleagues, patients, clients — than those without imposter thoughts.
The physicians-in-training who frequently worried about being imposters turned out to be better liked by patients than colleagues who were more confident. Why? The patients felt those in the first group had superior interpersonal skills. They nodded more, had better eye contact, and spoke in an agreeable, caring tone.
For Tewfik, this was an “aha moment.” It made her ask: What’s going on here?
When she asked the physicians-in-training if they were purposely trying to be more receptive to patients, she found that those who felt like imposters and those who didn’t were all trying to be similarly nice. But, she concluded, the imposter group was unconsciously altering their behavior in a specific way.
“When you have more imposter thoughts, it’s almost a compensatory story,” Tewfik argues. “You compensate for the fact that you might not be as smart as you think you should be, or you think other people think you are, and so you almost default to being more interpersonally sensitive.”
But what if those with imposter thoughts were acting with more humility because they were actually not as good as those with fewer imposter thoughts? After all, it’s great to have a nice doctor, but not if it comes at the expense of competence.
“What I found is there was no difference in diagnostic accuracy,” Tewfik says. Similarly, among the finance workers, those with imposter thoughts did not perform less well than their colleagues. “In fact, especially if you’re in a setting where performance is more subjective, if people think you’re a great person to work with, that probably is going to positively inform your performance ratings,” she says.
Tewfik’s findings make complete sense to Lyubov Sakharuk, who worked as an engineer in tech for about a decade. She says she always felt that she wasn’t smart enough. Like she didn’t belong.
But, Sakharuk says, “I didn’t have ego. I would come up to a [systems] architect... and they would give me an overview of the system. And I would have no problem saying: I’m sorry, can you slow down?... That made me learn more and build relationships.”
One day, during a lunch-and-learn session, Sakharuk read an article about the imposter phenomenon. “I was like, that’s what it is! I guess I’m not the only one. And everyone shared their stories. It wasn’t just women — it was women and men.”
Sakharuk now runs her own consulting firm in the Boston area and advises plenty of seasoned workers. “I see women in their 50s who I have observed firsthand, and they’re amazing. And they get on the phone with me and they say, ‘I feel like an imposter. I suck at this.’ And I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry — what?’”
Julia Geisman, the founder of local firm CareerAgility, has run workshops on managing imposter syndrome for years. Still, she can struggle with the feeling herself. “What am I going to do here?” she sometimes asks herself, when she’s in the spotlight. “How am I going to get through it? And I don’t feel as if I can handle it.”
Tewfik also speaks to corporate audiences, and finds that many people are shocked that there could be any kind of upside to feeling like an imposter. They want to know: Who’s wrong? The employee who doubts themselves? Or the colleagues who believe in them?
It’s likely the employee, says Tewfik. She notes that we tend to remember all the times we’ve failed. We internalize our mistakes. “We tend to weigh negative evidence more than positive evidence. So I definitely think a lot of times we’re probably not accurate in how we’re viewing our competence. Maybe the person in front of us actually has the right perspective.”
But she doesn’t sugarcoat it: Feeling like an imposter can be tough. “You’re going to feel this hit, from a well-being standpoint... You are going to feel more anxious.”
Still, Tewfik’s research may start to bend the narrative. Right now, she says, the message to the anxious employee is, “You have a problem. You need to fix it.” The reality is that, yes, you may have some internal misgivings. But that anxiety may morph into a considerable asset. Instead of thwarting success, it can propel you towards it.
Geisman, for one, is glad to see society move away from the term “imposter syndrome.” A syndrome, she notes, “can be a chronic illness... but when you think about a phenomenon, a phenomenon is actually something really special.”
Follow Kara Miller @karaemiller.