How Imposter Syndrome Can Improve Performance

Ever feel like a fraud? Learn about the three types of imposter syndrome and how to use imposter syndrome to improve performance.

“I hope nobody finds out I’m really a fraud.” That’s an extremely common worry for high performers. Imposter syndrome haunts many of us despite (and sometimes because of) our successes. The three types of imposter syndrome all relate to anxiety. But the goal shouldn’t necessarily be to overcome it. Instead, we can benefit from it by allowing it to motivate us.

Recently on The Science of Personality, Michael Sanger, director of assessment solutions for Leadership Development Worldwide, spoke about the topic. Currently based in Atlanta, Michael has lived in New York, Amsterdam, and Shanghai. “I’ve always known how it feels to be secretly insecure,” he said, referring to his global experience.

Imposter syndrome doesn’t have to be bad, though. In this article, we’ll cover what it is, three types of imposter syndrome, the possible benefits, and how to use imposter syndrome to improve performance.

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Many, many people who have met outward criteria for success have spoken or written about feeling like an imposter. Michael mentioned Sheryl Sandberg, former Meta executive; Maya Angelou, writer and activist; Howard Schultz, former Starbucks executive; and Sonia Sotomayor, US Supreme Court Justice, as feeling out of place, metaphorically looking over their shoulder, or worrying they will be exposed as a fraud.

“At its heart, imposter syndrome is a credibility tension,” Michael said. He pointed out that it doesn’t necessarily stem from low scores on the Hogan Personality Inventory scale Adjustment, which relates to tendency toward vigilance, self-awareness, and higher tension and stress. Instead, people who feel like imposters can have scores all along the Adjustment scale. They can show high stress tolerance, good self-regulation, and optimism. In other words, an absence of resilience doesn’t cause it.

The Psychology Behind It

Our current understanding of the psychology of imposter syndrome draws from the feminine psychology research of Karen Horney, MD, and research on the imposter phenomenon by Pauline Rose Clance, PhD. “Imposter syndrome develops when experiences in childhood are only selectively validated,” Michael explained. During childhood, humans try to gain support, develop a secure identity, and stabilize their self-esteem. When parents discriminate what aspects they value, children also become more selective in their self-regard.

Lingering feelings of inadequacy and abandonment can cause these individuals to feel concerned about how others perceive their work. These feelings may motivate them to try to meet expectations. Adults with this schema or worldview struggle to show growth tolerance, especially during increased responsibility, exposure, or success. That creates tension in their self-concept. That creates imposter syndrome.

Three Types of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome falls into three broad categories: (1) guilt based, (2) success based, and (3) performance based.

The traditional type of imposter syndrome derives from guilt, pessimism, low emotional stability, and low Adjustment. The second type stems from anxiety about success. “Think of the early-career executive who’s managing an acquisition or the entrepreneur who finally makes some traction,” Michael said. A determined leader who achieves a new scope of responsibility might feel like an imposter because their success has outpaced their tolerance for change.

The third type relates to the requirements of performing the job itself. “If you suffer from recurring bouts of imposter syndrome, you are likely going to be a consultant,” Michael joked. A former consultant himself, he described consultancy as a performance. Consultants are not usually subject-matter experts but must nevertheless appear knowledgeable. The drive to seem competent and relevant can affect their self-image and productivity.

Across the three categories, Michael advises people neither to get rid of nor succumb to it—but to leverage it. “The trick is to harness it in some way,” he said.

Who Gets Imposter Syndrome?

Everyone can feel like a fraud from time to time. But do women get imposter syndrome more severely or more frequently than men do?

The original research into imposter syndrome focused on the self-concepts of high-achieving women.1 This created a clinical foundation for understanding it as a phenomenon that widely affects women. “Societal expectations on women across the world are often very different from the ones that are put on men,” Michael said. “There is no denying that that the challenge for women in the high-achievement space has its own set of growth/credibility tension issues.”

Survey research suggests that women are more likely to report anxious feelings when compared to men. Imposter syndrome may not be more prevalent among women, but people may perceive it as being more common because men who feel anxiety might not report it.

Do people today experience it more often or more intensely than in the past? Likely not. “Our brains don’t biochemically distinguish between being attacked by a saber-tooth tiger and the threat of job loss. Anxiety is an equal-opportunity employer,” Michael said. The expanded scope of our work may have increased over time, yes. But despite the modern cultural effects on imposter syndrome, the feeling of anxiety is fundamentally human.

The Benefits of Imposter Syndrome

“There are more benefits than drawbacks, but the drawbacks can feel stronger,” Michael said. Sharing an insecurity can create identification and connection between others who feel the same way. People who feel like imposters use nonverbal behavior like eye contact and nodding, which can increase their interpersonal effectiveness. Showing stronger social skills can benefit team interaction and collaboration. Investing effort into preparation to compensate for a sense of inadequacy can also motivate better performance.

How to Use Imposter Syndrome to Improve Performance

First, understand the difference between identity and reputation. In terms of performance, identity relates to the actor’s viewpoint and reputation relates to the audience’s viewpoint. Our identity, or self-evaluation, rarely aligns with how we are really perceived. Feedback from scientifically valid personality assessments and 360-degree assessments can provide perspective and reputational insights.

Next, seek tactical coaching and peer connections. A Hogan coach can provide actionable feedback to help reframe someone’s mindset about imposter syndrome. “Imposter syndrome often signals your willingness to push boundaries because you’re stretching yourself outside your comfort zone, so to try to appreciate this as your natural response,” Michael said. Peer coaching sessions can normalize vulnerability and feelings of imposture, inspiring connection, confidence, and growth.

Finally, practice self-love. People with imposter syndrome struggle with feeling worthy. “So few of us got enough love in our childhoods,” Michael said. “Until we can build back that self-love with good coaching, force yourself to give your customers love. They will love you back.” Loving others can increase your sense of worth and make it easier to love yourself.


This post was originally published on the Hogan Assessments blog.


  1. Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247.
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