Thinkers50 Radar 2022: Basima Tewfik

Basima Tewfik is an award-winning professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Basima is most known for her work on rethinking what we know about imposter syndrome at work — a phenomenon with upsides that may not have been recognized in the past. Her research has been selected as a finalist for the Academy of Management’s William H. Newman Award, which recognizes outstanding papers based on a recent dissertation.

At the age of 31, Basima was named one of the 2021 Best 40-Under-40 Professors by Poets and Quants. Prior to her graduate work, Basima worked as a management consultant at Booz & Company, working with national and global clients across a wide range of industries. Basima’s research has focused on the psychology of the social self at work. Basima is also exploring request-declining at work, as well as effective employee and workgroup functioning in the modern workplace.

On Tuesday, 10 May 2022, Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove will have Basima Tewfik on as their guest in a new session of the Thinkers50 Radar 2022 LinkedIn Live series in partnership with Deloitte.

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Basima Tewfik

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Transcript

Des Dearlove:

Hello. Welcome to the Thinkers50 Radar 2022 series, brought to in partnership with Deloitte. I’m Des Dearlove and I’m the co-founder of Thinkers 50, the world’s most reliable resource for identifying, ranking, and sharing the leading management ideas of our age, ideas that can make a real difference in the world. In this weekly series of 45 minute webinars, we want to showcase some of those ideas to bring you the most exciting new voices of management thinking. Please let us know where you’re joining us from today and send over your questions at any time during the session.

Des Dearlove:

My guest today is Basima Tewfik. Basima’s Class of 1943 career development professor and an assistant professor of work and organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Her research examines the psychology of the social self at work, in particular, the underexplored phenomenon of imposter syndrome. Her dissertation on the topic won the 2018 INFORMS dissertation proposal competition and her work has also received recognition from The Society for Personality and Social Psychology, The International Association for Conflict, and The Academy of Management. A second stream of her research examines effective employee and work group functioning in the modern and increasingly complex workplace. Prior to her graduate studies, she worked as a management consultant at Booz & Company. Basima, welcome.

Basima Tewfik:

Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Des Dearlove:

Well, it’s a great pleasure. I mean the whole social self at work sort of area is a fascinating area of research and especially, I have to say, imposter syndrome. And we’re delighted to have you here to tell us about it. But tell us what first attracted you to this topic?

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah. I think, for me, it actually started back when I was a consultant. So when I was in consulting, I was really fascinated by the dynamics that I was seeing and I actually found that I was particularly fascinated by the teaming dynamics, what was happening among my consulting teams. And so, this actually led me to graduate school and in graduate school, in my first semester, I kind of was thinking, “What’s that idea that is particularly relevant to the workplace that I was thinking about back in consulting?,” and it ended up being this phenomenon of imposter syndrome. And I started looking into it and I realized, we actually don’t have a lot of great research on it.

Des Dearlove:

So you decided to step into the breach and fill the gap. Okay, right. Well, let’s go right to the heart of this, go right to the beginning of this. I think most people have heard the term imposter syndrome. Most of us have probably suffered from it at one point or another. I mean, the numbers I’ve seen suggest research showing 70% of people actually acknowledge or admit that at sometime or other they’ve felt it. But let’s start with a definition. What do we mean when we talk about imposter syndrome?

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah, I think this is a great starting point and this is actually where I started, as well. So I think there’s sort of two thing I want to acknowledge when we think about this stuff, initially. Originally, when this phenomenon was first advanced by psychologists Clance and Imes in the late 1970s. They said that the central feature of this phenomenon is this idea that other people overestimate you, so sort of the central thought is, “I think other people think I’m more capable or competent than I think I am.” Since then, a lot of the conversation has happened in the popular press, in the media, and as a result or perhaps in part, the sort of definition of the phenomenon has expanded to include things like fear of being found out or a lack of belonging.

Basima Tewfik:

And when we sort of conceptualize it as fear, it’s sort of no wonder that we think about this as a bad thing. So my work really starts with going back to the root of this phenomenon and saying, “Hey, it’s actually this idea of being overestimated,” which this is a common thing about high achievers. And I’m not saying it doesn’t lead to these things, a fear of being found out or a lack of belonging, but it’s not synonymous and we have to get really clear about this.

Des Dearlove:

Okay. Now, you mentioned the two psychologists from 1978, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. As I understand it, obviously I’m no expert, they were applying this, really, to sort of high performing women. But, I mean, obviously it’s wider than that. But talk us through that journey, as well, because I think, initially, that was the thought, it applied to women. And now, I think we’ve become a bit more enlightened about it.

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah, and I think that you’re saying is also the imprinting of ideas and why some ideas are stickier than others. And let me walk into that. Yeah, so essentially Clance and Imes, they studied this among women. They really approached it from sort of a clinical psychology standpoint. And, as a result, even though they themselves acknowledged that this was not just sort of a women that, that was really sticky for some people, right? A lot of people really seem to stick with this idea that it really only applies to women. Since then, and this isn’t just in my work, but if you look at sort of systematic reviews of this phenomenon, people have found that it applies equally to men and women, across racial categories, across jobs.

Des Dearlove:

Okay. I mean, that’s a whole conversation about why it got attached to women and some of that stuff is fascinating in some ways, but deeply disturbing in others. However, let’s understand, if we can, how it manifests itself. How do people feel when they’re suffering from this imposter syndrome?

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah. I think this sort of gets at the root of how I started studying this. One of the things that was really important was to figure out what is this manifestation? How do I actually ask employees if they’re experiencing this. And so, what I do in my work and what I think, again, really reflects the central idea that other people overestimate, is I ask employees, “How frequently have you had the following thoughts at work? How frequently have you thought others overestimate your abilities, that other people think you’re more competent than you are?” And you also asked me this question about feeling, right? So I sort of concede to this idea that it starts with these thoughts and these thoughts can lead to negative feelings.

Basima Tewfik:

So I want to emphasize that although my research, and we’ll get to this a little bit later, kind of shows that there might be this silver lining, one of the things I want to emphasize here is it still doesn’t feel great, right? So even if I’m defining it as this idea that other people overestimate your abilities, it definitely still affects your objective well-being, leading to things like anxiety or decreased self-esteem.

Des Dearlove:

Okay. And we were chatting a little bit just before we came on about how it might manifest itself in different parts of the world, and I think the point you were making is that most of the research and interest has tended to be coming from North America and probably Western Europe. Is there a cultural element to this?

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah. I mean, this is an open question, but I think likely there is, right? So if we even think about the classic thought that I told you about which is, “I think other people think I’m smarter than I think I am,” then that really sort of involves defining what smart is, what competence is, and I think that’s going to be defined not just culturally when we think about country culture, but it could also be sort of organizationally, right? If we think about a nonprofit versus a for-profit institution, what competence looks like is even different. And one thing, for example, to really bring this home, to think about culture in different ways is, for example, I studied this phenomenon in comedians. This is something that I’m doing very recently, so not published yet.

Basima Tewfik:

But, for comedians, competence might be how funny you are. And so, that’s a little bit different, right? And then, if you start to go into funniness, there’s obviously a cultural component of what is humorous versus what is not. So short answer, yes, even though I gave you a much longer answer.

Des Dearlove:

Well, we’re open to longer answers, as well. But yeah, there’s some sort of cultural dimension to it, be it across national borders, but also across corporate cultures potentially or areas of expertise, those sorts of cultures.

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah, definitely.

Des Dearlove:

Yeah. How does it show up in terms of behaviors, in terms of having an impact? Because I know the other side of your research is very much looking at how people function-

Basima Tewfik:

Respond.

Des Dearlove:

Yeah, yeah. Exactly. I mean, we’ll get, hopefully, onto your research specifically, but what sort of behaviors would people normally associate with people who are, I’ll say suffering, I’m trying to be careful with-

Basima Tewfik:

Yes, I think.

Des Dearlove:

… the quality of the language.

Basima Tewfik:

Well, let’s actually start with that language, this language of suffering. I think this actually gets to what makes talking about this phenomenon so interesting. When we think about this phenomenon of imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon, both of those words have kind of negative connotations, right? Having a syndrome doesn’t seem so good, being an imposter doesn’t seem so good. And so what we typically associate, behaviorally, is going to be negative behaviors at work, so things like withdrawal. Things like maybe not speaking up at work. Essentially, sort of less proactive behaviors, right? And often, in a work place and an increasingly changing and more complex workplace, you actually need proactive workers.

Basima Tewfik:

In my research though, I try to argue that this is not all that you’re going to see, and that maybe we’re relying too much on sort of the connotations of these words to really paint or get a sense of how people are going to respond when they have these behaviors.

Des Dearlove:

Okay, come on. Tell us a bit more then.

Basima Tewfik:

Okay, let’s jump in. For me, what I was actually thinking about, and this actually started with anecdotal research, so I actually started doing some qualitative interviews at the beginning, to really get a sense of people who experience this phenomenon. And one thing that I kept finding and thought was rather puzzling is that some of the people who were telling me that they had what I call imposter thoughts, so they thought to themselves, “I think other people overestimate me,” were actually quite successful at work and they were actually quite delightful to speak with. And so, I had this idea of, “Wait, might there be this interpersonal upside?” And this actually led me to go back to the original work, so we started with Clance and Imes, for example. If you read their original short paper, they talked about how people who experience this phenomenon are actually charming or socially sensitive.

Basima Tewfik:

And I got this idea of, “Wait, we’re in increasingly relational workplaces. We talk about soft skills, we talk about interpersonal skills. Might those who experience this phenomenon actually sort of display better interpersonal skills?” And this is actually the hypothesis that I went into and my work across various settings, so I studied this in finance employees, among doctors, and then also in a series of lab experiments to get a causality. I actually found this to be the case, so specifically those who experience more imposter thoughts were those who displayed a more other focused orientation, which I coded by looking at videos. So, specifically things like nodding or making better eye contact or open hand gestures, as opposed to being very closed off.

Basima Tewfik:

And as a result of displaying this greater other focused orientation, patients rated them as more interpersonally effective and supervisors rated them more interpersonally effective, as well as hiring managers. So I kept consistently finding this pattern across these different settings.

Des Dearlove:

I mean, one of the studies that I saw that you’d done was getting actors to turn up and portray certain illnesses with junior doctors, doctors who were sort of still finding their way, still training. I mean, I’m not going to spoil it by telling the… it’s your research, so you tell us what happened. I think I’m right in saying that the training doctors who apparently had imposter syndrome were equally good at diagnosing the condition, but had a better sort of bedside manner. Is that right?

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah, I think that’s perfect. This is actually the study that I’m most excited about. Like you said, I had this opportunity to look at physicians in training, these are doctors who right about to go into residency. And so, they’ve had sufficient training, they’ve often gone through some rotations, so they actually have had patient experience, but before they graduate, they need to, essentially, demonstrate their capabilities, often through a test, and the test at the medical school that I work with had the sort of standardized patient program, so these are people actually in the local area who sort of volunteered to assist medical schools with physician training. And what’s really great about them, by the way, is this emphasis on the word standardized, so they all go through a very extensive training to make sure that they are displaying the exact same sort of symptoms, they’re answering questions in the exact same way.

Basima Tewfik:

And what’s also really cool about these interactions is they often are videotaped, so we actually sort of what’s going on. In terms of the study, what I had is I asked these physicians to sort of report how frequently they had the following thoughts at work or in their training, so how frequently did they think that others thought they were capable then they thought they were, and then, a week later, they interacted with these standardized patients and afterwards I asked the standardized patients, “How interpersonally skilled did you find this doctors?” That is, how good were they at displaying empathy or asking questions or listening. And what I found is, again, that those who had more frequent imposter thoughts were rated by their patients as sort of being more empathetic, listening.

Basima Tewfik:

And what was really interesting is the video sort of revealed this other focused orientation. But this other focused orientation, by the way, was not purposeful. So it’s not that it was completely conscious that those physicians that had higher imposter thoughts knew exactly what they were doing. Rather, it seemed to be almost this subconscious reaction to, “Uh-oh, my patient may think I know exactly what I’m doing here, but maybe I don’t.” And then, getting to what you’re highlighting, too, this interpersonal upside wouldn’t mean a lot if they weren’t doing a good job. That is, they weren’t getting the right diagnoses. And what was interesting in this study and also in my other studies, I didn’t actually find downsides for competence related outcomes we care about, so things like performance, in this case, objective performance, did they get the right diagnosis.

Basima Tewfik:

I do want to highlight one caveat though. When I talk about this work, I really want to emphasize that just because I didn’t find this downside for performance and just because I’m finding this interpersonal upside doesn’t necessary mean that as a manager you shouldn’t worry about someone who has these thoughts. And this actually goes back to maybe our cultural conversation, which is employees sit within a particular context. And so, what I would sort of like people to think about is that you have to sort of, as a manager, consider three different outcomes, at least, which is employee well-being, interpersonal skills, and also competence related outcomes. And what I really want people to start thinking about based off of the study I just told you about, is to really consider when are you going to see employees display this interpersonal upside with no competence related downsides, and when are you not.

Basima Tewfik:

So I think one that is top of mind, given the recent pandemic, is thinking about those employees who may not have had an opportunity to interpersonally interact with someone that much. If they’re experiencing imposter thoughts, then one might guess, actually, that they’re not really getting the interpersonal upside, because they’re not really able to display this other focused orientation to others, perhaps, because they’re simply coding and they’re not really interacting with others. And maybe it doesn’t affect their competence, but one of the earlier comments we talked about is it still doesn’t make you feel great, right? So if you consider the net outcome there, you might still argue that this isn’t great to have.

Des Dearlove:

Yeah, fascinating. I mean, we couldn’t have an academic in without a couple of caveats.

Basima Tewfik:

Yes, I will definitely deliver on that it depends kind of idea.

Des Dearlove:

I mean, I’m going to make a slight lateral leap now, so please try and come with me. We had a very good webinar not so long ago with Amy Edmondson and Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic and the thing was about arrogant leaders and the damage they do. So are you following me so far? So the problem there is when there’s a disparity between confidence and competence, and there’s too much… well, it’s sort of the flip side, I think, of imposter syndrome. When you have leaders that are convinced that they’re better than they are, that is obviously… well, we’re now beginning to realize just how damaging that is. I mean, personally, I think I would rather have a leader who was unsure than overconfident. In a leadership sense, it’s better this way, isn’t it? It’s better that they are more competent than they think they are than that they are overconfident.

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah, I think this is a great question and I think I have a couple points or a couple strands that I want to pull on here. Which is, the first thing that you’re bringing up is what is the opposite of imposter thoughts? Is it overconfidence? Is it arrogance? Or, in other words, sometimes people ask me who are the 30% who aren’t experiencing these. I kind of laugh, because it could be a number of things. It could be people who aren’t really reflecting on what other people think of them. It could be people, as you were sort of arguing, are overconfident. They think they’re somewhere and they actually are at a lower level. One thing I want to highlight here with imposter thoughts though is it’s a discrepancy between two specific thoughts. So it’s what I think my abilities are and what I think other people think my abilities are.

Basima Tewfik:

So what reality is is actually not included in there, potentially, so I could think, for example that on a one to 10 scale I’m an eight and I think other people think I’m a 10. And it’s because of that discrepancy of two that I’m having these imposter thoughts. The other thread I sort of want to pull on that you’re getting at is this idea of, okay, what does this mean for people who are leaders, so leaders who have these imposter thoughts? So this is definitely an empirical question and it’s something that I’m actually studying right now. I don’t have the data to show you, but let’s talk about, almost bounce off some ideas here.

Basima Tewfik:

I definitely think there is a potential here that they are going to be better leaders, and the reason for that actually goes back to this other focused orientation mechanism, right? We know that these are people who tend to be orienting towards their social environment. They’re trying to pick up on cues to sort of better make sense of what are other people thinking of me. And so, to the extent that picking up on outside feedback is going to be useful, I think that’s going to be really helpful for navigating uncertain environments in workplaces, right? But one thing I want to highlight here, because context probably matters still here, so if it’s a leadership setting that requires sort of decisive leadership, that really you just need to go with your gut. Then I think you might not necessarily want someone who has more frequent imposter thoughts.

Basima Tewfik:

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you then would want someone who’s arrogant, right? I think what I just want to emphasize is you want someone who is lower in imposter thoughts, potentially, in those scenarios. But my hunch and what I hope I get to tell you in a year is that, yeah, leaders who have more imposter thoughts, they’re actually pretty great to work with.

Des Dearlove:

Yeah, I mean, this sort of talks to the humble manager and back to Jim Collins’ stuff about level five leadership, humility plus will and the fact that… I absolutely take your point. The people who are more aware of what other people think are also likely to be more attuned to accommodating that pleasing them, but it may not make them the most decisive leaders, though. I sort of understand what you’re saying. Sorry.

Basima Tewfik:

Oh, I was going to say one other thing. I mean, it makes me think about, so if we look at leadership research, there’s some research by Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, I think Dave Hoffman’s also on this paper, where it’s called reversing the extroverted leader advantage, where basically they find that extroverted leaders work really well with passive followers, and introverted leaders work really well with proactive followers. And I think that’s sort of something we need to also think about here, who are these people leading, and that’s probably going to make the difference for when we see people with imposter thoughts really shine.

Des Dearlove:

Interesting. I mean, I threw out the 70% and there’s quite a lot of research that’s just that 70% of people admit to imposter syndrome. Do you really think there are people out there who don’t have these thoughts. I mean, isn’t it really sort of all of us, but some of us are able to admit it. And I often wonder, with people who project arrogance, whether really they’re the most insecure of all.

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah, so I hope to not be offensive to anyone who’s like, “I’ve never experienced this,” but I think you’re getting at a very interesting question here, which is… Let’s assume, first, that there are people who don’t experience this, why would that be the case? And I think there’s actually a couple reasons for this. One of the reasons that I use the word imposter thoughts, not syndrome, not phenomenon, is because I want to emphasize that this is contextual, this happens at a particular time and it often happens because of situational things in your environment. For example, you’re more likely to experience this phenomenon if you have been recently promoted or you’re sort of taking on new responsibilities at work. So if we’re to take that assumption, then, essentially, people aren’t going to experience this if they’ve never really faced challenges.

Basima Tewfik:

So maybe they’ve been in the same job for a really long time, it didn’t really require too much of a ramp up period, I might expect that those people don’t experience those thoughts. The second category that I think is a bit more generous to that 30% might also be they don’t really reflect on their work to much, so maybe it’s not central to who they are, central to their identity, and so they’re not really reflecting on what other people think of them at work, so that could be one thing. And then, I do think what’s interesting about this idea of arrogance is do they really fundamentally believe that they’re so great or is it actual a defensive mechanism.

Basima Tewfik:

One thing that I think would be really hard and I would turn towards some arrogance researchers on this, is I think it’s really hard to disentangle, because what you’re suggesting, which is I think really plausible, but I don’t actually know if we can do this really well. It’s almost that they’re that implicit defensive mechanism, that they’re able to consciously acknowledge that it is a defensive mechanism. And I think, for some people, they actually are really good at, this is going to sound harsh, but deluding in some respects. And, in some respects, I actually admire that self-delusion.

Des Dearlove:

I think it can get dangerous. I think we’re experiencing a very seriously delusional leader at the moment, I think a lot of people would probably sympathize with that. So yes, they can also be dangerous. I’m just looking to see, I mean, I’m pleased to see we’ve got people from Denmark, from Chicago, New York City, New Delhi, Canada, and the Madeira Islands, Portugal. I think that’s the first time we’ve had people from the Madeira Islands in Portugal. So it’s great that people can join us and tune in. Please send us your questions and we will endeavor to put them to Basima. I got one here, actually, from Elizabeth.

Basima Tewfik:

Yes.

Des Dearlove:

She says, “What can managers do to help their employees strike a balance between interpersonal skills, such as empathy,” as you mentioned, “and not having consistent, perhaps debilitating, imposter thoughts?”

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah, Elizabeth, this is a great question. One thing I want to highlight here is that there are better ways to make someone interpersonally skilled. So what I don’t want a takeaway to be is, okay, if we know that employees have this interpersonal upside, maybe we should actually encourage our employees to have these thoughts. I would argue that’s probably not the case. More so, what I’m hoping is that managers can actually think about adopting that outcome mentality, like I talked about earlier. So really think about, okay, if there’s a way for me to start to, through conversation, get a sense of whether my employees are experiencing imposter thoughts, try to help them think about, is there a way for them to interpersonally shine, is it really affecting their work from a competence standpoint and how is their well-being.

Basima Tewfik:

I wish I could tell you a very specific prescription like, do these six steps. I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that, and I think it’s going to require individual conversations with individual employees to figure out what’s going on here. I do want to emphasize, though, one related question you may be thinking about is, okay, how do I even tell if my employees are having imposter thoughts? And I think, in that situation, it’s really, really important to think about are they facing new challenges at work? And then, making sure that you’re giving them the resources, right? So if you provide a lot of support, if you tell them where they can seek help, where they can seek information, you’re much more likely to tamp down the negative feelings that come with having imposter thoughts, while also providing the opportunity to actually see these interpersonal upsides.

Des Dearlove:

Okay. We’re going to take a couple more questions. Dean asks, and I don’t know if he heard the beginning of the session but, “Imposter syndrome seems to be characterized by self-doubt and a fear of being exposed as a fraud, not just self-doubt or just fear, it’s the fear of being exposed. Am I thinking about this correctly?” I know you touched on this a little bit at the start.

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah, but Dean is sort of getting at, I think what makes this conversation so complicated, everybody has their pet definitions that they’re attaching. What I really want to be clear about is that I would argue that self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud are things that have been naturally attached to the phenomenon’s definition, almost what I would call surplus meaning. It doesn’t mean that they’re not something that happens for those who experience it, but it’s not actually the concept that I’m talking about here. So I, again, go back to the original work by Clance and Imes. A lot of scholars have characterized that the central feature is this idea of being overestimated. And, as a result, that overestimation is probably correlated with self-doubt, right? It’s probably the case that the reason I think I’m an eight and other people think I’m a 10 in terms of competence, is probably because maybe I’m underestimating myself, which could be self-doubt.

Basima Tewfik:

And then, fear of being exposed as a fraud that could be a consequence, right? So one thing that I actually want to highlight is I’ve had conversations with people that I’ve found particular fascinating and I can think of one conversation, I was talking to a young woman, she was about in her late 20s and she was also an academic, a couple years senior to me, and she mentioned, when I was first telling her about this phenomenon and how I’m excited to study it, she tells me, “Oh, yeah. But I’ve definitely thought that other people overestimated me, but that’s their problem. If that’s what they want to think about me, this actually gives me benefits. People think I’m really competent and maybe this is actually going to help me succeed at work.” And so, it kind of presented this idea, people who have imposter thoughts, they do not always think that they’re going to be exposed or they do not necessarily always have a fear of being exposed. And so, that’s why I think it’s really important to actually distinguish these two and consider fear of being exposed as a proximal outcome potentially.

Des Dearlove:

That’s really interesting. Sean asks, and I think there is a subtle distinction between what you just said and what he’s asking, “Are imposter thoughts distinct from self-doubt? In other words, are they merely intrusions or more pathological, as it were?” From what I understood you to say just now, you could have imposter thoughts without necessarily it manifesting itself as self-doubt.

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah, so that’s exactly right and maybe the distinction here is even easier. Self-doubt doesn’t, by definition, capture what other people think. So when we talk about things like self-doubt or fear or being exposed or anxiety or just general insecurity, imposter thoughts isn’t that, because imposter thoughts incorporates two specific thoughts, what other people think of me and what I think of myself. And so, it’s actually one of those few concepts that we have that’s sort of interpersonally oriented. So even though it’s something you think in your head, you can’t have it unless you’re considering others and you’re doing a comparison to what you think. So people who have imposter thoughts can experience self-doubt, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Basima Tewfik:

And one way to even think about this is, one thing someone may be thinking is, “Well, who’s wrong? Am I wrong about my competence level or are other people wrong?” In my work, my suspicion is that I’m wrong and other people may be right. There might be a reason why someone else is promoting you. You actually are capable. But what I think is really going on is an information asymmetry story, which is in some ways it’s pretty natural to have imposter thoughts, because I know all my weaknesses more than somebody else does, right? I am sitting with those weaknesses, I know every challenge that I’ve experienced, I know when I’m thinking about something at work or when I’m working on something if I’m finding it really difficult to sort through. But for other people, they’re not sitting in my head, so they’re not seeing all of those thoughts that I’m having.

Des Dearlove:

Interesting. Ahmed observes that, “My opinion,” he says, “is that the superiority complex we were talking about earlier is actually due to an inferiority complex. The arrogance comes from that background.” I tend to agree with him on that. Did you want to say something else about that.

Basima Tewfik:

Well, I was just going to say, yes, I think this is actually your theory and I think that’s probably true. I also think that is, in some way, a healthy attitude to have at work, that when you’re interacting with someone that’s sort of challenging to work with, potentially realizing that that may be coming from a point of weakness or something they maybe should be working on. Maybe they don’t know that they should be working on it. But it is coming from something personal and it’s not a reflection of you.

Des Dearlove:

Okay. I mean, I think there’s so much to talk about on this topic, but I do want to talk a little bit about wider sort of social identity or working identity, as well. But we really should follow this through. What are the implications of all of this, of your research, but also the whole imposter syndrome phenomenon, if you like, for individuals and for organizations and what can we take away? What can we change, if we need to change anything? What can we do with this stuff?

Basima Tewfik:

I think this is a great question and ties also back to what Elizabeth was chatting with us about earlier. I think there’s three populations to consider here, right? The employee who’s experiencing these thoughts, managers, and organizations in general. So one thing that I hope that this research sort of inspires for employees themselves is to realize that the next time they have imposter thoughts, that it actually may have a silver lining. And the reason, by the way, to consider the silver lining or keep it in mind is because research on cognitive reappraisal would suggest that when we can think about something in a more positive light, it can also tamp down the negative emotions that we tend to associate with this phenomenon.

Basima Tewfik:

So what I’m hoping is next time you have imposter thoughts, you’re not sitting there feeling even worse about yourself, after identifying that they’re imposter thoughts. I think what happens now is someone goes, “Oh, I have imposter thoughts. That’s making me feel really bad. And now that I’ve also figured out that it’s called imposter thoughts, I now feel even worse about myself, because it looks like it’s just bad news. So that’s kind of what I hope for employees there, that they can sort of have this silver lining.

Basima Tewfik:

For managers, again, I really want to emphasize the net outcome mindset. Consider who in the workplace might be experiencing these imposter thoughts and consider if they have an opportunity to express this interpersonal upside. Because, if they don’t, then this is actually something that you need to manage, preferably, probably through confidence interventions, right? Raising that sense of what they think of themselves to sort of match it with what other people think. And for organizations, I think it’s really important to consider the type of organization that you’re in. So if you’re in an organization that has employees that are essentially knowledge workers, there’s sort of a subjective sense of what is good work here and what is achievement. That’s when you actually really need to be thinking about imposter thoughts in your midst a lot more deeply.

Basima Tewfik:

One other thing that I want to touch on, and we briefly touched on this, is how this relates to diversity. So you often hear this phenomenon being talked about in diversity-related conversations, so people saying that women or marginalized or minority employees are the ones who experience this. What I want to highlight, though, and someone else has also talked about this, as well, which is this is not just a women’s problem, this is not just a minority problem. And one thing I want to emphasize is when we start to think that it only affects certain people, in some ways, we actually put the burden on them to manage it, and that’s something I also want to argue is maybe not the right mindset or framework for thinking about this phenomenon.

Des Dearlove:

No, I think that’s an important point. And I think there have been some good articles written of late. I think there was a piece in the Harvard Business Review, Ruchika Tulshyan, wrote something probably about eight months ago, something like that, talking again about imposter syndrome. Interestingly, too, I saw a piece, Rachel Botsman, who is in our top 50 ranks, she wrote an article and it was called, Hello Again, Imposter Syndrome. Her job involves being very confident, walking onto a stage, as thought leader, as a thinker, and being very sure and not just impressing people with her ideas, but also entertaining an audience.

Des Dearlove:

But she acknowledges that she, at times, the imposter syndrome taps her on the shoulder and she was almost talking about making friends with imposter syndrome and identifying it and recognizing it and living with it and actually seeing it for what it can be, which is the positive energy and she cites your research, as I’m sure you probably realize. And she says, “Actually, the fact that I want to give a really good performance and that I’m nervous or whatever this is is actually a good thing, if you harness it.”

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah. [inaudible 00:38:01]

Des Dearlove:

And perhaps that’s what we need to do, is make friends with this feeling, these thoughts, in your terms here.

Basima Tewfik:

I think that’s completely spot on and I would argue, also, when it comes, it’s probably because you’re doing something right. It’s probably because you’re getting to enter a space that maybe you haven’t been able to enter, because you’ve demonstrated competence and capabilities prior. I think one thing to highlight is other people don’t want to get your competence wrong, right? It’s actually detrimental. If I think someone’s really great and it turns out they’re not, that’s going to be terrible for my company, right? So I think one thing we need to start doing is maybe be a little bit more trusting of those in our social networks. Maybe they’re right and maybe try to see things through their lens.

Des Dearlove:

Dean also makes the point, “One of the positive sides, I suppose, of the imposter thought can also remind us to be humble and appreciate the expertise of others.” I mean, I think, yes, realizing that other people might have this and being able to empathize, I think, is probably… again, we’re looking for the silver linings, I think.

Basima Tewfik:

Dean, I completely agree.

Des Dearlove:

So we’ve still got a little bit of time left, and I do want to talk about the other stream of your work. I know they’re sort of related, but I think the whole thing of identity at work and how we show up at work is absolutely fascinating. So can you tell us a little bit about that stream of research? And I think one of the points that you were making is that as work becomes more complex and our interpersonal skills come to the fore and the need to collaborate, all these things are sort of playing into a changing workplace.

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah, so my work, as your pointing out broadly sets out really looking at social interactions at work and how that’s affecting the quality of work that we can produce. The first work, when I got into this field, was with Dr. Drew Carton who’s at Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania and we worked on a paper around conflict management, particularly with teams and talking about the complexities that exist there. That is, often at work, we are experiencing multiple types of conflict at the same time, and so, as a manager, that’s actually really hard to figure out how to manage. So really, in that paper, we really look at things like how do you intervene when there are multiple types of conflict? And sort of the punchline of that paper is that whenever there’s status conflicts, so particularly people think that they’re maybe at a different status level than others, that’s when things get really tricky.

Basima Tewfik:

We can much better deal with when we’re having task conflict, which is, essentially, conflict around the content of a task or process conflict, which is how do we go about doing a task? As well as even relational conflict, which is what do we do when we’re experiencing interpersonal friction? But essentially, again, that status conflict is very sticky. There is always a motivation or a fundamental need for status and gaining greater status in the workplace, which can be really tricky. My other work actually looks at, what I call, the phenomenon of request declining, which is this idea of how do you say no when people ask you for things at work? And this line of research actually comes from the central idea which is, in organizations a disproportionate amount of helping is actually done by a very small number of people.

Basima Tewfik:

And so, this creates, actually an incredible burden on those who are helpers and puts them, somewhat, in a catch 22, which is how can they still be those helpful people that they’re naturally inclined to be while also still preserving their well-being, not burning out and actually even being, potentially, better with their help because they’re able to choose who they can help based off of their expertise or resources that are available. And so, really, all my work is trying to figure out, how can we take phenomena that we generally think of as dark side, right? Not helping is not, essentially, a great thing to tell people. But how do we sort of change the way that we think about these phenomena to really help employees thrive in the workplace?

Des Dearlove:

Oh, fascinating. I mean, and again there are echoes there of Adam Grant’s work when he talked about those givers and takers and matchers. I guess we don’t have much control over which of those categories we fall into. Perhaps we are just naturally one or the other. But I also think the interesting thing that came out of Adam’s work was that the people who actually perform the best or have the most successful careers are the givers, but they’re a certain type of giver. And also, the people at the bottom of the pile, who suffer the most, are also the givers. So if you’re inclined to be a giver and to be helpful, you’ve got to do it in such a way that it doesn’t damage your own prospects.

Basima Tewfik:

That’s completely right. It’s almost like this research is geared at how do we help givers become the successful givers, as opposed to those who sort of fall to the bottom. I’d also encourage people to look at work by Vanessa Bonds, who’s also a rising thinker in 2022 and she also has a great book that I think dives into these dynamics, as well.

Des Dearlove:

Okay, so what’s next for you? Is there a book in the works? What are you working on and where can people go to tune in to find out more about your work and to keep up with what you’re doing?

Basima Tewfik:

Yeah, so I hope to continue this stream of research that really gives us a better sense or a most holistic sense of the imposter phenomenon, as well as this work on request declining. My MIT website is usually updated quick periodically and I’m always excited to have conversations with people interested in these phenomenons, so don’t hesitate to reach out.

Des Dearlove:

And I’m sure you’ve got publishers knocking on the door. Are you request declining with the publishers at the moment?

Basima Tewfik:

Spot on. I am currently not pursuing a book at this time, maybe something in the future.

Des Dearlove:

Fantastic. We are running out of time now. Next week, we’ll be joined by another 2022 Radar thinker, Gorick Ng, the bestselling author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, which is a guide to help early career professionals, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, navigate the school to work transition and ascend to positions of leadership. Thank you to Basima and thank you to all of you who tuned in and please join us again next week.

Basima Tewfik:

Thank you, Des.

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