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Why impostor syndrome is a problematic term when it comes to workplace growth

By Kace O'Neill | |5 minute read

A growth mindset is something everyone has when they begin a new job, but many are instead prescribed with the term of impostor syndrome, which is a negative label that can lead to detrimental impacts.

For women especially, negative labels are often prescribed to them as they begin their careers in the working sector. According to the National Library of Medicine, impostor syndrome “is a behavioural health phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments when among high achieving individuals”.

Often, individuals cannot internalise their success and subsequently experience various feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and apprehension of being exposed as a fraud in their workplace despite verifiable evidence of their success.


HR Leader recently spoke to Angela Coble, the client group technology officer and gender ERG executive sponsor at Accenture Australia. Coble touched on why labelling young up-and-coming workers, especially women, with a negative connotation, such as impostor syndrome, can be extremely damaging.

“For whatever reason, we give negative labels to episodes in the careers of females versus males. So, for example, impostor syndrome, which even rolling off my tongue, I don’t even want to say it. But I need to use it to give you the example as to why we should never use that word again,” Coble said.

“Impostor syndrome is really just growth mindset. I don’t know any person [who’s] taken on a new opportunity, that was the right opportunity to have them grow and stretch and really move into something unique and purposeful for themselves that didn’t feel uncomfortable, that didn’t feel that, wow, I’ve got so much to learn stepping into this role.”

Herein lies the crux of the issue: whenever someone starts a new job, there are normal feelings of anxiety and often a fear of not living up to workplace expectations. These feelings, however, are completely valid and usually a habitual process that a majority of new employees endeavour.

Labelling it as impostor syndrome, which carries a negative stigma, is extremely unfair to the new employees. Instead, the label that should be used is that of a growth mindset, as it allows new employees to develop in their job without having to carry that stigma that a negative description like impostor syndrome can inflict.

“I did reach out to the researchers who coined that phrase [impostor syndrome], and I don’t even think they thought it would take on a life of its own and be used to label an experience [that everyone goes through]. Then to have it roll back and everyone say, ‘that’s the right thing to feel.’ But instead, we actually [should] call it growth mindset.

“That’s a very different label. So, automatically, it’s growth; it’s a mindset, it’s not impostor or a syndrome that needs to be treated. It starts to actually change that behaviour around it as it’s a learned behaviour,” Coble said.

That label of impostor syndrome can prove to be a barrier for women employees as the negative implication can make them feel that they don’t belong in that certain workplace or that they can’t keep up with their male counterparts, when, of course, that is not the case. The adoption of a fraudulent mindset that an impostor syndrome label offers must be expelled and instead replaced with that of a growth mindset.

“So, then it [impostor syndrome] becomes a learned behaviour, and the negative label then becomes a barrier. Rather than saying, this is growth mindset, this is exactly how you should be feeling, and actually, your male colleagues feel the same way,” Coble concluded.

“I think the way that we use labels and the words we use is an important part of overcoming this leadership deficit that we have in terms of female participation.”

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill is a Graduate Journalist for HR Leader. Kace studied Media Communications and Maori studies at the University of Otago, he has a passion for sports and storytelling.