The Unexpected Benefits of Doubting Your Own Competence

We’ve all heard about the “imposter syndrome” — the feeling that others are overestimating our abilities — and we know it’s a bad thing. Or is it? Wharton researcher Basima Tewfik scrutinizes the accepted wisdom, with surprising results.

Basima Tewfik“Stop feeling like a fraud in 30 days!” “Overcome the fear that haunts your success!” “Replace self-doubt with self-confidence!” There’s no shortage of self-help books and articles that promise to help people overcome the “imposter syndrome” that is purportedly holding back their career. The syndrome involves feeling inadequate in your job or position and believing that others overestimate your abilities.

Much of the serious psychological research tends to start from the same assumption: that imposter syndrome is unequivocally detrimental. But I wondered if there could be a bright side. Inspired by my experiences as a management consultant for Booz & Company, I decided to investigate the relationship between having imposter thoughts at work and job performance.

For my working paper “Imposter Thoughts As a Double-Edged Sword,” I performed studies with over 160 employees of an investment solutions company, and also with ROTC cadets and with physicians-in-training. The outcomes were not, in fact, uniformly negative, but mixed. While having imposter thoughts does elicit fear—which can cause people to flub what they’re working on—it can also be a motivator. That motivation can be a good thing for job mastery.

I also found, interestingly, that having imposter thoughts actually improves interpersonal performance at work: helping people, cooperating, and encouraging others. It seems that when employees feel that their competence is lower than others think, they may be spurred to prove themselves on an interpersonal level.

Imposter syndrome isn’t “always good” or “always bad”; it’s a much more complex phenomenon than it’s been represented to be.

One example comes from my research with physicians-in-training. I mounted a patient simulation using actors trained to behave as if they had a particular disease. I found that the doctors who had imposter thoughts came up with the same diagnoses and treatment plans as those without imposter thoughts, which meant that those thoughts hadn’t impeded their work abilities. Moreover, the physicians with imposter thoughts were better at interpersonal interaction, as rated by their actor “patients” as well as outside observers. These doctors engaged in active listening behaviors: they leaned forward more, mirrored their patients’ body language, asked more questions and offered more explanations.

Clearly, imposter syndrome isn’t “always good” or “always bad”; it’s a much more complex phenomenon than it’s been represented to be. Overall, my work contributes to identity research by examining self-concepts: how employees see themselves and how they believe others see them. And as workplaces become less about organizational hierarches and more about collaboration and teams, it’s increasingly essential to understand the ways in which we construct our identities at work.