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Build Your Career Get Ahead

Feel Like an Impostor? Don't Undervalue Your Career Potential

Feel Like an Impostor? Don't Undervalue Your Career Potential
Credit: KieferPix/Shutterstock

Have you ever had the feeling that you're not truly qualified enough for the job you have? Researchers dub this mentality "the impostor phenomenon," and a new study from researchers at the University of Salzburg in Austria shows it might hurt not only your self-esteem, but also your career prospects.

By undervaluing their talent, workers may not fulfill their true potential and thus end up hurting their careers, according to the study, published recently in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

"Whereas other employees experience growth in self-esteem after achieving success at work, [impostor phenomenon] sufferers experience an increase in their sense of fraudulence negative feelings, and dissatisfaction," the study's authors wrote. "The [impostor phenomenon] is fueled by low self-esteem and the fear of failure as well as of success, and it acts as an inner barrier to career development."

Overall, close to 70 percent of professionals have felt like "impostors" or "frauds" during at least some part of their career, the study's authors found.

The researchers said that those who doubt their abilities, even if they have achieved career success, are afraid of failing in future jobs and of being labeled as fake. In the end, this creates a vicious cycle that prevents those suffering from the impostor phenomenon from developing an optimistic perspective in the future.[See Related Story: 5 Science-Backed Ways to Boost Your Confidence at Work]

On the flip side, workers who truly believe in themselves are much more optimistic, which enhances their chances of promotion and increases their work productivity, according to the study, which was based on surveys of 238 employees working across a variety of sectors and professions.

The researchers discovered that the so-called impostor phenomenon had a negative effect on career satisfaction, job happiness, salary, promotions, and internal and external marketability.

"As impostors feel they have fewer adaptability resources and are less optimistic regarding their career, their perceived internal marketability diminishes," the researchers wrote. "This could be another reason why impostors do not strive for a higher position within their company."

This feeling also has a negative impact on an employee's psyche. Workers who feel like impostors report various negative thoughts and emotions, and are more likely to experience feelings of depression, the study's authors said.

However, there may be one positive effect of the imposter phenomenon, said study co-author Mirjam Neureiter, a research assistant at the University of Salzburg. "It seems to encourage people to offer their best performance ... to prevent being uncovered as frauds," Neureiter said in a statement.

Neureiter thinks that, in the end, workers who need to overcome the impostor phenomenon and its negative consequences should talk about their feelings.

"As the impostor phenomenon contains the fear of being exposed, it might be expedient to provide networking programs or supervision groups where sufferers have the chance to share their experiences and feelings without any blaming," Neureiter said. "Incorporating the impostor topic in support measures might enhance the reduction of impostor feelings as well as their negative effects."

The study was co-authored by Eva Traut-Mattausch, a professor at the University of Salzburg.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.