New Research on Getting Caught in the ‘Impostor Cycle’

Businesswoman Hiding Behind Plant and Wearing Disguise
Photo: ImageSource/Corbis

Impostor syndrome is when you feel like a fraud in your professional life; it is also, sometimes, when you dress up like Cookie from Empire in order to overcome those feelings. It would make sense for people who feel like big fat frauds at work to respond by working even harder, taking on additional tasks that go beyond their job description in order to prove themselves. This, alas, is about exactly the opposite of what typically happens, according to some recent research on the phenomenon, published in the Journal of Business Psychology

It’s part of something researchers call the “impostor cycle”: Feeling like a fraud at work makes you behave like one, which, obviously, makes you feel even more like a fraud. A team of scientists from Ghent University in Belgium recently set out to uncover more about the behaviors that are correlated with impostor syndrome, and among their findings — recounted this week in a piece at Harvard Business Review — they discovered that employees who say they have impostor syndrome also report being less likely to volunteer for tasks at work that go beyond their job description.

More on that — which they call “organizational citizenship behavior” — from lead researcher Jasmine Vergauwe, as she explained to HBR writer Scott Berinato: 

Organizational citizenship behavior, or briefly OCB, refers to behaviors that go beyond your job requirements, such as helping colleagues with their work, working longer than you are expected to work, attending meetings that are not mandatory. We argued that due to the fear of being exposed, impostors can become so engaged in their own tasks and performance that there remains less energy for tasks that are not part of their job description. 

Who has the energy to take on extra tasks when you’re too busy worrying that you’re not qualified for the tasks you actually have to do? On the other hand, Vergauwe said, this finding itself could’ve been sabotaged by the participants’ impostor syndrome. The study was based on self-reports — that is, people answered questions about themselves — and so “the negative relationship might also be due to a general tendency to downgrade oneself,” Vergauwe explained. By their very nature, people with impostor syndrome make it really hard for researchers to study people with impostor syndrome.

New Research on the ‘Impostor Cycle’