LGBTQ people are more likely to experience imposter syndrome at work – here’s how to manage it

A person is looking and smiling to the camera on the right side of the image. On the left side, the same person is looking away and appears sad.

Many people feel like they’re not good enough at work, and those in the LGBTQ+ community could feel this more than straight colleagues.

Imposter syndrome (IS) involves feelings of self-doubt and failure that overtake work achievements. These feelings are one of the workplace’s most common mental health issues. Those who experience imposter syndrome often feel like they are a fraud, and feel that they will eventually get “caught.”

While imposter syndrome isn’t technically a medical condition, it is very real. Surveys show that up to 89 per cent of people have experienced imposter syndrome in some way. Insights from Indeed’s “Working on Wellbeing” report highlight that of those that have experienced imposter syndrome at work, 94 per cent haven’t talked to anyone at work about it. Anyone could develop imposter syndrome, but women are twice as likely to live with it than their male colleagues.

In a twist of irony, employees that are especially bright and successful are more likely to experience imposter syndrome – and even British Vogue editor Edward Enninful isn’t immune.

Speaking in London at a recent youth symposium event, presented by Citi, the first out gay editor-in-chief of the iconic “Fashion Bible” reflected his own struggles with self-doubt, saying: “If you’re suffering with imposter syndrome, it’s natural. I can assure you that every successful person you see out there has it.”

He added: “I’ve learned over the years, after a lot of work, how to push it to the side.”

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Imposter syndrome and the LGBTQ+ community

Data from Indeed’s report shows that more LGBTQ+ employees feel the impacts of imposter syndrome more than cishet people. Thirty per cent of LGBTQ+ people say that they frequently experience imposter syndrome at work, and a staggering 64 per cent of transgender people say they deal with it frequently. 

For Helen Hardy, founder of women’s football e-commerce business Foudys, living with imposter syndrome comes from her role as a leader: “I’m always trying to boost my employees’ confidence, telling them to own their space and make them feel really good. 

However, I find that I’m not always practising what I’m preaching, and the pressure I place on myself to be a competent and worthy role model can feel really debilitating and anxiety-inducing. So my IS is driven by my desire to set high standards for myself and be a good leader.”

Hardy also thinks that the LGBTQ+ community are more susceptible to experiencing imposter syndrome, but over time she has used her sexuality as a source of empowerment. “For the LGBTQ+ community, there are already so many barriers that we need to deal with, making us more vulnerable to experiencing imposter syndrome than straight/cis people.

“I’m now so empowered by being LGBTQ+. Being part of a community I care so much about has spurred me on, forcing me to accept my version of womanhood and ultimately empowering me even more.”

On the left side of the image, a person has their head on their arms leaning on a table. On the right side, the same person is leaning their head on their hand.
Data from Indeed found that 30 per cent of the LGBTQ+ community experience imposter syndrome. (Getty/PinkNews)

From phenomenon to syndrome

When psychologists first wrote about this experience in 1978, they used the term “Imposter Phenomenon” (IP) to describe it. Over time, the word ‘syndrome’ replaced ‘phenomenon,’ and according to Dr Laura Kilby, Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, the language should shift back.

She explains: “I always start by recommending that we begin by reframing the issue and properly recognise it as a structural issue – linked to historic workplace cultures of inequality and exclusion.

“Moreover, when we describe someone, or ourselves, as having imposter ‘syndrome’, it individualises the experience and potentially exacerbates feelings of shame  and a negative cycle is further perpetuated.” 

What causes imposter syndrome and how to manage it

Imposter phenomenon is associated with multiple factors including personal and familial traits. If you grew up in a family that highly values professional success, for example. 

Dr Kilby’s own research suggests that those who come from underrepresented backgrounds and when the “workplace does not feel congruent with their ‘whole self’” are more likely to experience feelings of impostorism. 

Aside from confronting the structural issues that increase the likelihood of the imposter phenomenon, Dr Kilby suggests a few steps that employees and employers can take to tackle it at work.

A woman with glasses is at work and is looking off towards a window.
There are steps that both employees and businesses can take to help ease feelings of being an imposter. (Getty/PinkNews)

Measure your achievements

Create a list of items directly connected to your job that you can use to assess your achievements. Dr Kilby says: “For example, it might take the form of a weekly checks and balances activity that you do at the end of the week to remind yourself just how much you have achieved.”

Get feedback

Getting feedback is something we all need to be successful at work, but for those who experience imposter phenomenon, the twice-a-year review just doesn’t cut it. Dr Kilby believes that “a more regular feedback loop can help us to sense-check our performance. Seek out objective validation from peers and learn to accept feedback as it is given.”

Find a mentor

There are many benefits to finding a mentor, and that includes creating a safe space where people can figure out how IS disrupts their wellbeing. Dr Kilby suggests that a mentor can help someone explore their feelings: 

“Addressing feelings of imposter phenomenon and breaking the maladaptive behaviours it can lead to, such as excessive overpreparing, can be absolutely key for supporting career progression and improving wellbeing at work.”

Reflect and reappraise 

Making the time to revisit your goals and to understand the relationship with mistakes or failures can help ease the experience of imposter syndrome. As Dr Kilby puts it. “Mistakes and failures can be the bedrock of our future successes, whereas fear of failure undermines creativity and curiosity, which are vital tools for success.”

Normalise imposter syndrome

Much like other issues that impact mental health and wellbeing, talking about it openly lessens the stigma that people face when it comes to addressing imposter syndrome. Dr Kilby says that diversity should be a cornerstone of these conversations: “Creating opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to speak about their own experiences of IP can be immensely helpful to others.”

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