Beyond Unreasonable Doubt: Helping Those Struggling with the Impostor Syndrome

event calendar icon

17 Jun 2024

11:00 -12:30

Times are shown in local time.

Open to: All

event map pin icon

Room W2.01 (Cambridge Judge Business School)

Trumpington St



United Kingdom

Join our Organisational Behaviour Seminar

Speaker: Dr Jeffrey Bednar, Brigham Young University

Organisational Behaviour.

About the seminar topic

The impostor phenomenon describes the experience of thinking you are an intellectual or professional fraud due to the belief that others have overestimated your competence in a particular domain (Clance & Imes, 1978). Given the prevalence of impostor thoughts in a variety of organisations, research on this topic has been gaining momentum among both management scholars and practitioners such as: Gardner et al (2019), Harrel (2022), Rohrmann et al (2016), Sakulku & Alexander (2011), Tewfik (2022), Tulshyan & Burrey (2021), Villwock et al (2016).

A growing body of literature has examined the consequences of the impostor phenomenon. Some studies suggest that impostor thoughts are harmful and significantly limit career opportunities (Kets de Vries, 2005) and exacerbate mental health challenges, like anxiety and depression (Bernard, et al., 2010). Other research shows that impostor thoughts do not negatively impact performance and may have positive benefits (Tewfik, 2022). In this research, we move beyond examining the consequences of impostor thoughts to explore the triggers of impostor thoughts, and the mechanisms that can help alleviate them.

In this study, we are examining impostor thoughts among a sample of entrepreneurs. Understanding entrepreneurial cognitions has become an important aspect of entrepreneurship research (Mitchell et al., 2002), and research suggests that developing an entrepreneurial identity “plays an important role in how [entrepreneurs] think and act from new venture launch to harvest” (Crosiana et al., 2021). Many entrepreneurial activities rely on demonstrating capabilities and competence to stakeholders such as investors, business partners, and employees willing to join a volatile employment arrangement (Markman & Baron, 2003). Entrepreneurs operate in environments marked by high uncertainty and their decisions have major implications for the entire organisation. Entrepreneurs also face greater isolation given that their organisations lack cohorts and mentorship structures that might be present in more established organisations making their reference groups less clear. Thus, we believe that learning about the triggers of impostor thoughts for entrepreneurs and the mechanisms that enable effective management of these thoughts can be a great benefit to entrepreneurs. We also believe our research can help individuals dealing with impostor thoughts in the more general population. 

To date, we have conducted 25 interviews with entrepreneurs at various career stages: some are new entrepreneurs, some are serial entrepreneurs, and some have transitioned to more investment and consulting roles after establishing highly successful startups. We have used entrepreneurship centres and incubators to recruit these entrepreneurs for one-hour semi-structured interviews about their experiences with impostor thoughts. Through our interview protocol, we ask informants to rate the extent to which they have experienced impostor thoughts, expound on what triggers these impostor thoughts, explain how they cope with them. We also probe how they may coach others who experience these thoughts. All interviews are transcribed, and we are using principles of qualitative analysis to uncover emerging themes.  We have paused our data collection and are in the process of altering our protocol before collecting additional interview data. Currently we are seeing unique patterns in the way impostor thoughts are triggered in an entrepreneurship context, including the tension between corporate vs. entrepreneurial prototypes. We are also seeing developing patterns about the role of mentors, including ‘imagined’ mentors, and the way they help entrepreneurs to frame their experiences in healthy ways. Your feedback on our emerging findings can be invaluable in shaping our next steps as we enter our next wave of data collection.

Speaker bio

Jeff Bednar (PhD, University of Michigan) is an Associate Professor in the Management Department at Brigham Young University. His research focuses on how individuals and collectives construct and maintain their identities, and how they respond to various identity challenges. His research has been published in various books and journals including the Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science, Journal of Applied Psychology and Harvard Business Review. Jeff also teaches courses related to organisational behaviour and human resource management, and works with organisations and executives wrestling with issues related to their identity and culture.


If you would like to register, or know more about this event, please email Luke Slater.