Half of New Zealand workers say they experience imposter syndrome at work, according to research from employment marketplace SEEK. 

Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon where you doubt your own skills and successes, feel you’re less worthy than other people think and are scared people will eventually realise that.

SEEK’s data shows the biggest trigger for imposter syndrome is feeling like you’re not as experienced as you think you should be. The second biggest trigger is thinking you're not intelligent enough. 

Excelling at work but feeling underqualified 

Michael, who is using a fake name to protect his job, works at a start-up and says he feels like an imposter because he didn’t finish university. 

He’s been working since he was 15 – he has been a paper boy, plumbing contractor, sports coach and referee, construction worker, and had a brief stint at a bakery. 

Michael, 21, is now working as an administrator managing a start-up company’s bank accounts.

He says when the company advertised the job, they wanted someone with a background in finance and an understanding of the financial services sector. 

Michael had neither of those but applied anyway and got the job. 

The first six months in his new role were “painfully difficult” because he had a lot of learning to do. 

He’s now spent almost two years in the role and his performance reviews say he’s “passing with flying colours” which makes him feel like an imposter, he says. 

“I have half a Spanish degree and nothing really to show for it… But apparently the work I’m doing is exceeding expectations, so it’s weird.”

He says despite being young, he is the most senior person within his team and trains new employees who have degrees and are older than him. 

When his trainees ask questions, he says he feels like he’s “bullshitting” even though he actually knows the answers. 

“It really did show me that even if you have a degree, work – actual work experience – is completely different.”

Imposter feelings vs Imposter syndrome 

SEEK’s resident career coach Leah Lambart says people have imposter feelings all the time. 

These feelings arise when you’re about to put yourself out of your comfort zone by doing something like a job interview, a pitch or public speaking, she says. 

SEEK’s resident career coach Leah Lambart. Photo: Fi Mims.

If those feelings end up preventing you from doing things, that’s called imposter syndrome, she says.

Low self esteem, a lack of confidence or a drive for perfectionism can be some reasons people experience imposter syndrome, Lambart says. 

Imposter feelings affect workers of all experience levels 

“When we enter a workplace, there's so much to learn, there's a very steep learning curve usually,” Lambart says.

If a person new to the workplace is left to fend for themselves during this learning process and doesn’t receive regular positive feedback, it can lead to low self-confidence, she says. 

Some young people fall into jobs that aren’t the right fit for them and compare themselves to people who have the right fit, which can also cause them to feel like an imposter, Lambart says. 

But imposter syndrome doesn’t just affect young people — SEEK found 37% of New Zealand workers say the syndrome increased throughout the course of their career. 

This can be because there’s more pressure, visibility and expectation at senior roles and those workers may not feel worthy of their promotions, Lambart says. 

Tips to overcome imposter syndrome 

Lambart says the first step is to “make people realise that it's not unusual and to normalise it”.

She recommends documenting things you do well which builds confidence and increases energy levels. That could look like creating an inbox folder in your email where you save the positive feedback you get, she says. 

Lambart recommends finding opportunities at work to use your strengths and doing professional development in the areas you want more experience in. 

If things aren’t going well at work, it can help to do things outside of work to build confidence, she says. 

For people like Michael who feel underqualified because they don’t have a degree, Lambart says “people tell you if you're not doing a good job, but if they're telling you you're doing a great job, you need to listen to them”. 

“Qualifications can help people get into a career but if you can find a different way to get in there and still perform just as well, then there's no reason why you shouldn't be there.” 

More stories: 

An employment lawyer on what you need to know before your first job

Contracts, pay negotiation, HR and more.

How the proposed sick leave changes could impact you

The Government is proposing changes to the Holidays Act.

In THIS economy? How young business owners are currently holding up

A business association spokesperson explains what it’s like for young entrepreneurs right now.