Shot of a young woman looking pensive at a desk
Research suggests imposter syndrome is a double-edged sword that can hold people back or motivate them to master their job © Getty

Competence does not guarantee confidence. Albert Einstein once expressed dismay about the “exaggerated esteem” won by his life’s work. The feeling that one’s abilities are overestimated by others was named “imposter syndrome” in 1978. It is blamed for mental health problems as well as for stopping many people, including women and minority groups, from reaching their potential.

But self-doubt can bring unexpected benefits. Trainee doctors who suffer from imposter syndrome have a better bedside manner. Under confident employees of a US investment advisory firm are better at helping people, co-operating and encouraging others. These findings come from a recent study by Wharton researcher Basima Tewfik. Insecure folks seemed to be spurred to prove themselves on an interpersonal level.

Imposter syndrome, the research suggests, is a double-edged sword. Fear can hold people back and make them underperform. But it can also motivate them to master their job.

Line chart showing the gap in confidence between male and female leaders by age

Even so, it is a barrier to getting to the top. Few business and political leaders climb the greasy pole without having confidence. That is because of a widespread tendency to see bravado and charisma as a sign of leadership potential, according to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a business psychology professor at University College London and Columbia University. Those with a quieter leadership style are often overlooked. Women are less likely to overrate themselves, he argues. Accordingly, many ill-suited men get top jobs.

Arrogant people even use humble-bragging as a means of stealing some of the social equity of the underconfident.

Dot plot chart showing that imposter syndrome tends to fade with experience by comparing percentage of those with imposter syndrome with years of experience

There is evidence that imposter syndrome fades with time. A study of medical librarians found that three times as many of those who were new to the job had these feelings, compared with peers who had at least 11 years of experience. Perhaps “shushing” unruly medical students brings out the tiger in a person.

Similarly, the confidence gap between male and female leaders closes with age, according to a study of business leaders by Zenger Folkman, a leadership development consultancy.

There is a case for rethinking attitudes to imposter syndrome. A lack of confidence is a blight. Its flipside — complacency and conceit — is more damaging still.

But for the moment, in a world inclined to believe individuals’ own assessments of themselves, confidence is a well-rewarded characteristic. “Fake it until you make it, then keep on faking it” is the most profitable strategy for ambitious people.

The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us what you think of imposter syndrome in the comments section below.

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