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Fear of being exposed: The trait-relatedness of the impostor phenomenon and its
relevance in the work context
Jasmine Vergauwe*, Bart Wille, Marjolein Feys,
Filip De Fruyt, and Frederik Anseel
Ghent University, Belgium
Published in: Journal of Business and Psychology
*Address correspondence to: Jasmine Vergauwe, Department of Developmental, Personality,
and Social Psychology, Ghent University. H. Dunantlaan 2, B-9000 Gent. Belgium.
Jasmine.Vergauwe@ugent.be Tel.: +32 9 264 64 29
Running head: THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON
Fear of being exposed: The trait-relatedness of the impostor phenomenon and its
relevance in the work context
Purpose – The Impostor Phenomenon (IP) refers to the intense feelings of intellectual fraudulence,
often experienced by high achieving individuals. The purpose of this study is threefold: (1) examine
the trait-relatedness of the IP; (2) investigate the potential impact of impostor tendencies on relevant
work attitudes (i.e., job satisfaction and organizational commitment) and organizational citizenship
behavior (OCB); and (3) explore whether workplace social support can buffer the potential harmful
effects of impostor tendencies.
Design/methodology/approach – Belgian employees (N=201) from three different sectors
participated in a cross-sectional survey study.
Findings – Hierarchical regressions revealed that Big Five personality traits, core self-evaluations, and
maladaptive perfectionism explain large proportions of the variance in impostor tendencies (∆R²=.59).
A relative weight analysis indicated self-efficacy as the most important predictor, followed by
maladaptive perfectionism and Neuroticism. Further, results showed that employees with stronger
impostor tendencies indicate lower levels of job satisfaction and OCB, and higher levels of
continuance commitment. However, workplace social support buffered the negative effects of
impostor tendencies on job satisfaction and OCB.
Implications – Employees hampered by impostor tendencies could benefit from coaching programs
that focus on the enhancement of self-efficacy and the alleviation of maladaptive perfectionistic
concerns. Impostor tendencies have an impact on career attitudes and organizational behavior. Extra
attention could be devoted to the assessment of this specific trait constellation in selection or
development contexts. Interventions designed to increase social support are particularly relevant in
Originality/value – Despite its relevance for contemporary work settings, the IP has barely been
investigated in adult working samples.
Keywords: impostor phenomenon; personality; job satisfaction; organizational citizenship behavior;
organizational commitment; workplace social support
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 2
"Bluffing" their way through life – as they see it –, they are haunted by
the constant fear of exposure. With every success, they think, "I was
lucky this time, fooling everyone, but will my luck hold? When will
people discover that I'm not up to the job?" (Kets de Vries, 2005, p. 110)
Under the influence of positive psychology, the ‘bright side’ of employees and their behavior
at work has dominated applied research in the past decades. However, the past few years the
Industrial/Organizational (I/O) psychology literature has witnessed an increased attention for
the ‘dark side’ of behavior at work as well, including studies on leadership derailment (e.g.,
Kaiser & Hogan, 2011), the ‘dark triad’ (O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, & McDaniel, 2012), and
aberrant personality tendencies (Wille, De Fruyt, & De Clercq, 2013). It is in this context of
dysfunctional or maladaptive patterns of employee feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that the
Impostor Phenomenon (IP) can be brought to the fore. The IP was first introduced by Clance
and Imes (1978) to describe the intense feelings of intellectual and professional fraudulence,
experienced by high achieving individuals. Despite the accumulation of objective evidence
suggesting the contrary, such as remarkable academic achievements and a successful career
history, these persons are unable to internalize and accept successful experiences. Individuals
experiencing impostor tendencies are convinced that others overestimate their capacities and
will eventually discover that they are not truly efficacious, but go through life as ‘impostors’.
As a consequence, they are haunted by the perpetual fear of being exposed as incompetent.
Further, they have persisting doubts of their own abilities, and repeated successful
experiences fail to weaken these feelings of fraud (cf. the ‘impostor cycle’; Clance, 1985).
Clearly, the IP may have detrimental effects on people’s personal well-being, inducing
feelings of depression (e.g., McGregor, Gee, & Posey, 2008) and overall poorer mental health
(Sonnak & Towell, 2001). Moreover, impostor tendencies may be detrimental for people’s
potential for career advancement, for example by acting as an internal barrier to move up to a
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 3
more senior level (Kets de Vries, 2005). However, to date the IP is still poorly understood,
despite its potential relevance in contemporary work settings. For instance, data from the
Global Workforce Study (Towers Watson, 2012), covering more than 32 000 full-time
employees from 29 countries, revealed that with the growing global competition, workers
around the world experience an excessive pressure on the job and are increasingly anxious,
risk averse and security-minded. In this increasingly achievement-oriented environment, for
many people failing is just not an option, and career advancement helps to ensure employment
security in these economically difficult times. The adverse outcomes of such a climate are
now clearly visible, with burnout and stress-related problems booming in many of the
industrialized countries across the globe (Maslach, 2012). It is not unthinkable that for a
certain category of employees who are prone to feelings of fear and incompetence, this
economic climate may also constitute a breeding ground for dysfunctional thoughts and
feelings associated with the IP. Presuming that the IP may manifest more often than we think
and that it might be related to adverse work-related outcomes, we believe that additional
research on this topic is now timely and warranted.
The general objectives of this study are to improve our understanding of the IP, and to
explore its relevance in the work context. To this end, we will first focus on the dispositional
basis of this construct, investigating a broad range of personality constructs (i.e., Big Five
personality traits, core self-evaluations, and perfectionism) that are potentially associated with
the IP. Second, despite the fact that the IP could be a highly relevant construct in
contemporary work settings, the IP has mainly been studied in student samples and real-life
organizational outcomes have been largely ignored so far. To the best of our knowledge, only
one piece of work has suggested theoretical relationships between the IP and work-related
outcomes (McDowell, Boyd, & Bowler, 2007), although these propositions have never been
tested empirically. The current study addresses the need for additional research on the IP in a
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 4
working context, and represents one of the first to evaluate the relevance of the IP against a
selection of organizationally relevant outcomes, including job satisfaction, organizational
citizenship behavior (OCB), and organizational commitment. Finally, we will explore how
environmental features, in particular workplace social support, may moderate the potential
negative effects of this phenomenon on work-related criteria. In summary, the current study is
centered around three main research questions:
(1) How is the IP related to a broad range of personality traits?
(2) How is the IP related to relevant work-related outcomes?
(3) Can workplace social support buffer the potential harmful effects of the IP?
The Trait-Relatedness of the Imposter Phenomenon
Although Clance and Imes (1978) initially emphasized environmental influences in the
development and sustaining of impostor tendencies, more recently researchers have also
started to consider personality variables in this context (e.g., Bernard, Dollinger, & Ramaniah,
2002). However, most if not all of the existing studies have addressed this issue in student
populations and/or very specific research samples (e.g., Korean Catholics; Chae, Piedmont,
Estadt, & Wicks, 1995). Moreover, the scope of personality variables that have been
considered is limited. We sought to extend previous findings for the IP and personality by (a)
examining a broader trait spectrum and (b) addressing this topic in a sample of working
Personality traits refer to "dimensions of individual differences in tendencies to show
consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions" (McCrae & Costa, 2003, p. 25). Given
that the IP is defined in terms of pervasive patterns of dysfunctional thoughts and feelings, we
strongly support the interpretation of Ross and Krukowski (2003), describing the IP as a
maladaptive personality style, which itself can be seen as the product of a combination of
traits, including the Big Five traits (e.g., Watson, 2012). Based on an extensive review of the
IP literature, we have made a careful selection of personality variables that can be argued to
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 5
be conceptually related to this specific dysfunctional personality tendency. By taking into
account a wide array of personality variables, we aim to facilitate the definition and sharpen
our understanding of the IP as a maladaptive personality style. What exactly are the
personality building blocks that constitute this fear of being exposed? Is it about fear, self-
perceived incompetence, or maybe the pursuit and cherishing of unrealistic goals? In the
present study, this trait-relatedness of the IP will be evaluated against (1) a broad and
comprehensive taxonomy of personality: The Five-Factor Model (FFM); (2) a higher-order
construct related to the self-concept, clearly relevant to feelings and cognitions of being an
intellectual fraud: Core Self-Evaluations (CSE); and (3) a more narrow trait with some
conceptual overlap with the IP: Perfectionism.
Five-Factor Model traits. The Five-Factor Model of personality is currently the most
widely used framework for investigating the trait-relatedness of organizational phenomena.
To date, however, only a small number of studies have tried to unravel the IP using this
comprehensive framework of traits. Studies investigating student samples have consistently
found a positive correlation with Neuroticism and a negative correlation with
Conscientiousness (Bernard et al., 2002; Chae et al., 1995; Ross, Stuwart, Mugge, & Fultz,
2001). Also, some of this research has indicated a negative relationship with Extraversion
and/or Agreeableness (e.g., Chae et al., 1995; Ross et al., 2001), although these associations
are generally much weaker and inconsistent across studies. For reasons of generalizability, it
is crucial that these associations between the IP and traits of the FFM obtained in students are
replicated in settings where stakes are much higher, such as the work context. A comparison
of how personality is related to the IP in workers (this study) versus students (previous
research) is further warranted given that the effects of personality on attitudes and behavior
have been shown to depend on the specific stage of career development that one is in (Woods,
Lievens, De Fruyt, & Wille, 2013).
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 6
Clearly, the ongoing fear of being exposed as incompetent is a prominent emotion in the
IP. Besides the central role of anxiety (e.g., Oriel, Plane, & Mundt, 2004), associations with
other facets of Neuroticism, such as depression (McGregor et al., 2008) and shame (Cowman
& Ferrari, 2002), substantiate the importance of Neuroticism as a dispositional source of
workers’ impostor tendencies. Individuals high in Conscientiousness can be described as
reliable, organized, ambitious and thoughtful. Furthermore, they are characterized by strong
feelings of competence, reflecting their belief in personal effectiveness (Hoekstra, Ormel, &
De Fruyt, 2007). This final asset of conscientious individuals is exactly what impostors seem
to lack (e.g., Clance & Imes, 1978). The persistent feelings of incompetence, which reside at
the heart of the impostor construct, suggest a negative relationship between workers’ impostor
tendencies and Conscientiousness. Concerning the association with Extraversion, there have
been no equivocal results in the literature; either a modest negative relationship was found
(Chae et al., 1995; Ross et al., 2001) or no significant relationship was found (Bernard et al.,
2002). However, assuming that interpersonal contacts make it more likely to be exposed as an
impostor, impostors can be expected to be more introverted. Moreover, extraverts are inclined
to be more cheerful and optimistic (i.e., the facet Positive Emotions), which is opposite to the
impostor profile, characterized by generalized negative affect (e.g., worried, less optimistic
and relaxed; Leary, Patton, Orlando, & Wagoner Funk, 2000). Concerning Openness to
experience and Agreeableness there are less clear conceptual reasons to expect an association
with the IP. Moreover, except for Chae et al. (1995), who found a weak but significant
relationship between the IP and Agreeableness, no significant associations have been reported
previously. Although no relationships are expected a priori with these personality traits, these
variables are nevertheless taken into account because we aim to explore the relationship with
the complete FFM of personality in the present study. This leads to the following hypothesis:
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 7
Hypothesis 1: Regarding Big Five personality traits, workers’ impostor tendencies are
expected to be positively related to Neuroticism (1a), and negatively to Extraversion
(1b) and Conscientiousness (1c).
Core self-evaluations (CSE). According to Judge and colleagues, individuals with
positive CSE appraise themselves in a consistently positive manner across situations, see
themselves as capable, worthy and in control of their lives (Judge & Kammeyer-Mueller,
2012a). In contrast, individuals with impostor tendencies are characterized by low self-
appraisals and general negative affect (e.g., Leary et al., 2000). Although the CSE-construct
and the IP demonstrate a strong level of convergence at the conceptual level, they have
presently not been investigated jointly, as a result of which no direct estimates of their precise
degree of overlap are available yet.
Judge, Locke and Durham (1997) described CSE as a higher-order latent construct that
captures four core personality traits: self-esteem, generalized self-efficacy, emotional stability
(low neuroticism) and locus of control (LOC). In order to answer our first research question,
we consider it to be useful to investigate the relationship between impostor tendencies and
CSE at both the higher-order level and the facet level. According to Judge and Kammeyer-
Mueller (2012a), it can be relevant to study the individual core traits – whether or not
complementary to the higher-order construct – because there may be specific-factor variance
that can be attributed to each of the core traits. A hybrid approach, considering both broad and
narrow measures, might hence be the best choice when the aim is to better understand what
predisposes impostor tendencies.
Although self-esteem has been reported to be a significant negative correlate of the IP
(e.g., Sonnak & Towell, 2001), others found no significant relationship (e.g., Garwick, Ford,
& Hughes, 2011). However, assuming that feelings associated with the IP, such as self-doubt
and self-criticism (e.g., Clance, 1985; Thompson, Davis, & Davidson, 1998), must affect the
value one places on oneself in a work context, we do expect a negative association in the
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 8
current study. Moreover, we expect impostors to score lower on emotional stability, as we
argued above (cf. high Neuroticism in the FFM), and there are also strong reasons to believe
that self-efficacy and LOC play a considerable role in the IP. Clance and Imes (1978) argue
that impostors typically lack self-confidence and they experience a lasting sense of
intellectual inauthenticity, despite repeated successful performance. As a result, impostors’
judgments of their capabilities (i.e., self-efficacy) can expected to be low. Furthermore,
impostors clearly have difficulty internalizing their success. They attribute their achievements
to external factors such as luck, charm, knowing the right people, or working much harder
than others to accomplish the same results, rather than to their own abilities (Clance &
O’Tool, 1988). The following hypothesis can be formulated:
Hypothesis 2: Workers’ impostor tendencies are negatively related to core self-
evaluations. More specifically, this means that more intense impostor tendencies will be
related to lower levels of self-esteem (2a), lower generalized self-efficacy (2b), lower
emotional stability (2c) and an external locus of control (2d).
Perfectionism. In addition to the FFM traits and CSE, a review of the IP literature also
identifies perfectionism as a final trait potentially relevant for understanding this
dysfunctional personality pattern (Clance, 1985; Thompson, Foreman, & Martin, 2000).
Although perfectionism has long been defined as an essentially negative construct (e.g.,
Hollender, 1978), accumulated evidence now shows that perfectionism can better be
considered as multifaceted (e.g., Stumpf & Parker, 2000). Hamachek (1978) was one of the
first who made a distinction between "normal" and "neurotic" forms of perfectionism. He
described normal or adaptive perfectionists as those who set high expectations and standards
for themselves, but also experience a sense of pleasure and pride when those expectations are
met. Neurotic or maladaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, are those who set high
standards, but never seem to feel a sense of accomplishment, even when their high standards
are met (Kearns, Forbes, Gardiner, & Marshall, 2008). While the first type of perfectionism
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 9
generally shows positive correlations with indicators of good adaptation, such as positive
affect, life satisfaction and an active coping style; the second - maladaptive perfectionism - is
associated with indicators of maladjustment, such as negative affect, life dissatisfaction,
depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem (Stoeber & Otto, 2006). The present study is the first
to consider this distinction between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism in the context of
impostor tendencies at work. The following hypothesis is proposed:
Hypothesis 3: Workers’ impostor tendencies are expected to be positively related to
maladaptive perfectionism (3a) and negatively to adaptive perfectionism (3b).
Work-related Outcomes associated with the Impostor Phenomenon
Although prevalence rates among working samples are lacking, the relatively high prevalence
rate of the IP among students (e.g., 43% in Sonnak & Towell, 2001), might indicate that the
IP is more common than we suspect, and may leave its marks in the workplace. In line with
Ross and Krukowski (2003), we believe that the IP represents a maladaptive and pervasive
style of interacting in the world, which not only limits one’s potential in educational contexts,
but also hinders one’s functioning and performance at work. In an effort to begin the
exploration of the IP in a work context, we will examine its relationship to a selection of
outcomes that have proven to be of high relevance in this setting. First, we consider job
satisfaction as a potential correlate of the IP, given that this attitudinal variable is one of the
most predominant outcome variables in the applied literature (Judge & Kammeyer-Mueller,
2012b). Moreover, job satisfaction has been shown to be related to a range of important
constructs including employee well-being (Faragher, Cass, & Cooper, 2005) and performance
(Judge, Thoresen, Bono, & Patton, 2001). Second, we focus on organizational citizenship
behavior, which is an aspect of job performance that has been argued to be influenced by a
person’s level of efficacy perceptions (Beauregard, 2012). As we argued, these perceptions of
self-efficacy are expected to constitute one of the defining characteristics underlying the
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 10
impostor construct. In a similar manner, given that perceived competence has also been
shown to relate to an employee’s commitment levels (Kittinger, Walker, Cope, & Wuensch,
2009; Mathieu & Zajac, 1990), we included organizational commitment as a final potential
outcome of the IP in the current study.
Before we build our arguments concerning the expected relationships between impostor
tendencies and the organizational outcomes, we will briefly discuss how the investigated
personality variables relate to each of these outcomes, using prior meta-analytic work. As we
believe the IP to be a constellation of personality traits, the individual dispositional variables
can be considered as a part of the IP construct. Therefore, knowledge about how the separate
personality variables relate individually to the organizational outcomes, might give a
preliminary indication about the expected relationships between the IP and the outcomes.
Moreover, and importantly, we will also illustrate how the IP as an overarching personality
constellation can be related to the organizational outcomes through the combination and
interaction of individual trait effects.
Job satisfaction. Meta-analytic work on the dispositional source of job satisfaction has
already revealed a robust negative association with Neuroticism (Judge, Heller, & Mount,
2002) and positive associations with self-esteem (Judge & Bono, 2001) and CSE (Lemelle &
Scielzo, 2012). Interestingly, the idea of the impostor phenomenon may help to better
understand the combined effects of these and other personality variables on job satisfaction.
Specifically, when an achievement-related task is assigned to them, impostors are usually
plagued with worry, self-doubt and anxiety. In order to deal with these feelings, they either
extremely over-prepare a task, or initially procrastinate followed by frenzied preparation.
Mostly, they succeed and they experience temporary feelings of elation and relief. However,
their success reinforces the feelings of fraudulence rather than weakening them, because in
their mind this success does not reflect true ability. Once a new task is assigned, feelings of
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 11
anxiety and self-doubt reoccur, a phenomenon referred to as the ‘impostor cycle’ (Clance,
1985; Thompson et al., 1998). In the work environment, achievement-related tasks are
common, and there are hence reasons to believe that an employee who is stuck in an impostor
cycle and who fears to be exposed will report lower overall satisfaction in his or her job.
Organizational citizenship behavior. OCB is an aspect of job performance and can be
described as “individual behavior that is discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by
the formal reward system, and in the aggregate promotes the efficient and effective
functioning of the organization” (Organ, Podsakoff, & MacKenzie, 2006, p. 3). Research on
individual dispositional factors underlying OCB has identified relatively robust positive
associations with Conscientiousness and Agreeableness (Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Paine, &
Bachrach, 2000), and with CSE and adaptive perfectionism (Beauregard, 2012; Bowling &
Wang, 2012). Assuming that traits such as Conscientiousness, CSE and adaptive
perfectionism are inversely related to the IP, it can be expected that the IP, as a constellation
of these individual traits, will also be inversely related to OCB. Moreover, here again the IP
offers a way to better understand the combined effects of these individual traits on OCB. The
contextual knowledge and skill which Motowidlo, Borman, and Schmit (1997) conceive as
predictors of OCB are likely to be influenced by an individual’s impostor tendencies.
Specifically, as individuals high in impostor tendencies make less use of adaptive behavioral
strategies (e.g., Want & Kleitman, 2006), these individuals are less apt to have knowledge of
both what citizenship behaviors are appropriate in a particular workplace situation and how to
plan for and conduct these behaviors effectively. Furthermore, it can be argued that due to the
fear of being exposed, impostors can become so engaged in their own tasks and performance
that there remains less energy for tasks that are not part of their job description. Presuming
that high personal achievement is the ultimate cover for their self-perceived fraudulence, and
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 12
that personal resources are restricted, we expect impostors to be less inclined to engage in
Organizational commitment. Allen and Meyer (1990) developed the three-component
model of commitment which differentiates between affective, normative and continuance
commitment. Affective commitment reflects an emotional attachment to, identification with,
and involvement in the organization. Normative commitment is experienced as a sense of
obligation to remain, and continuance commitment reflects the perceived costs associated
with leaving (Meyer et al., 2012). In the current study, we focus on two of these components,
affective and continuance commitment, because they are most distinguishable from each other
and because it has been demonstrated that they show different patterns of correlations with
antecedent and consequence variables, in contrast to normative commitment, which strongly
relates to affective commitment and has similar correlation patterns with other variables
(Meyer, Stanley, Herscovitch, & Topolnytsky, 2002).
Prior research on individual personality traits and these commitment dimensions has
indicated positive associations with CSE (Stumpp, Hülsheger, Muck, & Maier, 2009) and
self-efficacy (van Vuuren, de Jong, & Seydel, 2008) for affective commitment, and a positive
association with Neuroticism for continuance commitment (Erdheim, Wang, & Zickar, 2006).
In terms of the IP, McDowell, Boyd, and Bowler (2007) theorized negative associations with
affective commitment and positive associations with continuance commitment. With regard to
affective commitment, they argued that impostors’ intense feelings of self-doubt and their
difficulties to internalize success could hinder the development of an emotional bond with the
organization. Concerning continuance commitment, it can be argued that impostors think that
they are selected into jobs that are at higher levels of responsibility and salary than they
deserve. In case that they would leave their current job, they would feel that they are not able
to find a job at the same level (McDowell et al.,2007). This is also in line with Powell and
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 13
Meyer (2004) who found a positive relation between ‘perceived lack of alternative
employment opportunities’ and continuance commitment. Hence, impostors’ fear of failure is
not expected to outweigh the cost of leaving the position. The following hypothesis can
therefore be proposed concerning workers’ impostor tendencies and work-related outcomes:
Hypothesis 4: With regard to work-related outcomes, impostor tendencies are expected
to be negatively related to job satisfaction (4a), OCB (4b), and affective commitment
(4c); and positively related to continuance commitment (4d).
Workplace Social Support as a Buffering Mechanism
In the present study, for the first time in the literature, it is empirically investigated whether
workplace social support alleviates the potential negative outcomes associated with
employees’ imposter tendencies. Understanding the situational characteristics that might
mitigate the potential negative effects of IP tendencies may hold benefits for both the
employee and the organization. Whitman and Shanine (2012) recently posited that the
ongoing thoughts and feelings within an impostor cycle may eventually result in a persistent
state of physical and emotional depletion, which could form a threat for individuals’ well-
being and that of the organization. In order to continue functioning effectively, these authors
argue that impostors must engage in behaviors that mitigate these feelings of exhaustion.
More specifically, they suggest that social support could moderate the type of coping
mechanism that exhausted impostors use. Impostors who perceive more social support may
choose to engage in active coping strategies and may be more effective in addressing the
source of the stress. Impostors experiencing less social support, in contrast, may rather choose
to engage in avoidant coping strategies to deal with the exhaustion. Although the co-workers
and superiors do not represent the true source of the threat, an impostors’ fear that these
people will expose him or her as inadequate, render them as threatening for the employee with
impostor tendencies. By avoiding the source of the stress as a means of coping, the latter type
of impostors could “enter a loss spiral that subsequently leads to greater exhaustion”
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 14
(Whitman & Shanine, 2012, p.193). We propose that the perception of high support enables
impostors to cope more adequately with their impostor tendencies, protecting them from
negative organizational outcomes as compared to impostors with a low support perception.
Following hypothesis is proposed:
Hypothesis 5: The negative relationships between workers’ impostor tendencies and job
satisfaction (5a), OCB (5b) and affective commitment (5c); and the positive relationship
between impostor tendencies and continuance commitment (5d) are expected to be
moderated by workplace social support, in such a way that social support will weaken
Design and Participants
Dutch-speaking Belgian white-collar workers (N = 201; 58% female) participated voluntarily
in this study. The mean age of the sample was 36.11 years (SD = 10.18). Table 1, detailing the
demographic characteristics of the sample, further shows that participants were recruited from
three different employment sectors: Finance & Accounting (N = 62), HRM (N = 63) and
Education (N = 76). Among the participating organizations were an international accountancy
firm, several HR-consultancy firms and three schools. After the management had expressed
their commitment to participate, they informed their employees about the investigation by
email, including a friendly, noncommittal request to participate through a link that directed
participants to an online survey. Employees from different organizational levels could be
included in this study and most of them held a master’s (40%) or a professional bachelor’s
Except for the demographic and control measures, respondents were asked to endorse all
survey-items on a 5-point Likert scale; ranging from 1 (not at all true) to 5 (very true) for the
impostor- and perfectionism scale, and ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 15
agree) for the other measures. All non-Dutch instruments were translated into Dutch using
back-translation procedures as described by Brislin (1970).
Demographic variables. Sex, age, employment sector, educational-, and organizational
level were selected as relevant control variables. Because of their categorical nature, dummy
variables were created for sex (one dummy with male = 0 and female = 1) and for sector (two
dummies with Finance & Accounting being the reference category).
Impostor phenomenon. Impostor tendencies were assessed using the 16-item Clance
Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS; Clance, 1985). A validation study of the CIPS
demonstrated that the IP was related to, but substantially different from measures of
depression, self-esteem, social anxiety, and self-monitoring (Chrisman, Pieper, Clance,
Holland, & Glickauf-Hughes, 1995). A more recent study revealed that the internal
consistency reliability and item discrimination were satisfactory (French, Ullrich-French, &
Follman, 2008). However, these authors advised to use the total score of the CIPS because the
confirmatory factor analysis results for the original theoretical model (i.e., with three
subscales Fake, Discount and Luck; Clance, 1985) were unsatisfactory (French et al., 2008).
Although the CIPS originally contained 20 items, four items were eliminated due to low inter-
item correlations (French et al., 2008; Kertay, Clance, & Holland, 1991). Example items of
the final scale are “I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as
they think I am” and “When people praise me for something I’ve accomplished, I’m afraid I
won’t be able to live up to their expectations of me in the future”. Cronbach’s alpha of the
impostor scale was .93.
It is important to note that in contrast to most of the prior IP studies (e.g., Ferrari, 2005;
Oriel et al., 2004; Sonnak & Towell, 2001; Thompson et al., 2000), we adopted a dimensional
approach to measure impostor tendencies instead of the categorical approach that
distinguishes ‘impostors’ from ‘non-impostors’. Unlike the categorical approach, which uses
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 16
– often arbitrary – cut-offs to differentiate between only two ‘types’, the dimensional
assessment considers the full range of scores on an underlying dimension of impostor
tendencies. Such a dimensional perspective is more consistent with the way personality
tendencies, adaptive and maladaptive, are distributed in the population (e.g., Campbell &
Miller, 2011). Distributions of IP tendencies (means and standard deviations) in the entire
sample and within different demographical subsamples are presented in Table 1. However, in
order to enable comparisons with prior studies, a categorical variable was also created to
provide base rate information of categorized ‘impostors’ in addition to the distributions of IP
continua. Using a cut-off score of 50 out of 80 (see Note below Table 1; cf. Holmes, Kertay,
Adamson, Holland, & Clance, 1993), 20% of our adult working sample is categorized as an
‘impostor’ (M = 57.93, SD = 6.96), and 80% as ‘non-impostor’ (M = 34.42, SD = 8.48).
Big Five traits. Big Five personality traits were assessed using the Dutch/Flemish
version of the 60-item NEO Five Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI; Hoekstra et al., 2007). The
internal consistencies of the five personality domains are acceptable to good, ranging between
.70 (Openness to experience) and .87 (Neuroticism).
Core self-evaluations. The Dutch/Flemish version of the CSE scale (De Pater,
Schinkel, & Nijstad, 2007) by Judge, Erez, Bono, and Thoresen (2003) was used to assess
participants’ core self-evaluations. To avoid item-overlap, we eliminated the
neuroticism/emotional stability subscale from this instrument because this trait was already
covered by the NEO-FFI. The three remaining facets of the CSE scale were each surveyed by
means of three items: self-esteem (e.g., “Overall, I am satisfied with myself”), generalized
self-efficacy (e.g., “When I try, I generally succeed”), and LOC (e.g., “I determine what will
happen in my life”). A higher score on LOC represents an internal locus of control. To obtain
a score of the higher-order CSE construct, we combined the three CSE subscales with the 12-
item Neuroticism scale (reversed), as measured with the NEO-FFI. Because of the item
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 17
imbalance between the CSE components (i.e., three items for self-esteem, self-efficacy and
LOC versus 12 items for emotional stability), the aggregate CSE score represents the mean of
the four subscale scores instead of the mean of the 21 items. The internal consistency of the
entire CSE scale - including emotional stability - was good (α = .91). The Cronbach alpha’s
for the separate subscales were somewhat lower: α = .71 for self-esteem, α = .60 for self-
efficacy, α = .87 for emotional stability, and α = .67 for LOC.
Perfectionism. The validated Dutch perfectionism instrument by Soenens
Vansteenkiste, Luyten, Duriez, and Goossens (2005) was used, measuring three scales of the
Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990):
Personal Standards (7 items; e.g., “I set higher goals than most people”), Concern over
Mistakes (9 items; e.g., “I should be upset when I make a mistake”), and Doubts about
Actions (4 items; e.g., “Even when 1 do something very carefully, I often feel that it is not
quite right”). Previous research has identified the subscale Personal Standards as an indicator
of adaptive perfectionism and the other two subscales as indicators of maladaptive
perfectionism (Frost et al., 1990). To obtain a measure of adaptive perfectionism, the items of
the subscale Personal Standards were averaged. A score on maladaptive perfectionism was
obtained in a similar way, namely by averaging the scores on the subscales Concern over
Mistakes and Doubts about Actions. Cronbach's alpha was .80 for adaptive- and .92 for
Job satisfaction. The three-item scale from the Michigan Organizational Assessment
Questionnaire (Cammann, Fichman, Jenkins, & Klesh, 1979) was used to measure overall job
satisfaction (e.g., “All in all, I am satisfied with my job”). Cronbach's alpha was .92.
Organizational citizenship behavior. The Dutch translation of the OCB questionnaire
by Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Moorman and Fetter (1990) was adopted from De Clercq and
Fontaine (2007). This self-report instrument consists of 24 items that cover Organ’s (1988)
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 18
five OCB dimensions (i.e., altruism, conscientiousness, civic virtue, courtesy and
sportsmanship). Lepine, Erez and Johnson (2002) found in their meta-analysis that the
different OCB dimensions are strongly interrelated and that they are not differentially related
to the most commonly studied antecedents. Therefore, only the aggregate OCB-construct will
be taken into account in the present study (α = .87). Sample items are “I help others who have
heavy workloads” and “I attend meetings that are not mandatory, but considered important”.
Organizational commitment. The revised six-item versions of the commitment scales
of Meyer and Allen (1997) were used. In the context of this study, only affective- (e.g., “This
organization has a great deal of personal meaning for me”) and continuance commitment
(e.g., “I feel that I have very few options to consider leaving this organization”) are
considered. While the affective commitment scale had a good internal consistency (α = .82),
Cronbach’s alpha for the continuance commitment scale was substantially lower (α = .62).
Workplace social support. Participants completed the 15-item Mentoring and
Communication Support Scale (Hill, Bahniuk, Dobos, & Rouner, 1989), which measures four
types of social support at work, namely social support from colleagues, task support, career
mentoring and coaching. Examples of items are “Someone of a higher rank frequently devotes
extra time and consideration to me” and “My associates and I assist each other in
accomplishing assigned tasks”. Cronbach’s alpha of the composite scale was .84.
With regard to the mean impostor tendencies, shown in Table 1, a t-test first indicated no
significant sex differences in mean impostor tendencies, t(199) = -1.48, p > .05. Moreover, an
analysis of variance test showed that there were no significant differences in mean IP
tendencies between the three sectors, F(2,198) = .21, p > .05.
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 19
All descriptive statistics, variable intercorrelations, and internal consistencies are
reported in Table 2. The results first show that impostor tendencies are highly correlated with
a number of personality constructs. Both the higher-order CSE construct (r = -.71, p < .01)
and the facets of CSE are strongly associated with impostor tendencies, with self-efficacy
showing the strongest relation (r = -.71, p < .01), followed by emotional stability, LOC and
self-esteem (r = -.64, r = -.56 and r = -.55 respectively, p < .01). Further, maladaptive
perfectionism (r = .62, p < .01) and the Big Five personality domains Neuroticism (r = .64, p
< .01), Conscientiousness (r = -.41, p < . 01) and Extraversion (r = -.43, p < .01) also show
relatively strong correlations with impostor tendencies, and a smaller but significant
relationship was found with Agreeableness (r = -.18, p < .05). Regarding the associations
between impostor tendencies and the work-related outcomes, significant relationships were
found with job satisfaction (r = -.30, p < .01), OCB (r = -.36, p < .01), and continuance
commitment (r = .23, p < .01).
Personality Variables associated with Impostor Tendencies
The hypotheses concerning the trait-relatedness of the IP were first investigated by means of a
series of four hierarchical regression analyses that each examine the effects of one personality
framework (FFM, CSE, and perfectionism) separately. In each of these regression models,
control variables were entered in a first step, followed by the personality variables in a second
step (see Table 3, Models 1 to 3). In line with our hybrid approach regarding CSE, we
conducted two separate regression analyses for this construct: one with the higher-order CSE-
construct as a predictor of IP tendencies (Model 2a), and one with its facets (Model 2b).
Consistent with our expectations regarding the Big Five traits (Hypothesis 1), impostor
tendencies are positively related to Neuroticism and negatively to Conscientiousness (β = .51
and -.13 respectively, p < .001). No significant relationships were observed between impostor
tendencies and Openness or Agreeableness (β = -.04 and -.07 respectively, p > .05). Finally,
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 20
the expected negative relationship with Extraversion (Hypothesis 1b) failed to reach
significance when the Big Five traits were entered as a set (β = -.12, p > .05). Together, the
Big Five traits explained up to 43% of the variance in impostor tendencies, above and beyond
the control variables, F(5,189) = 30.32, p < .001.
The results of the subsequent regression models (Model 2a and 2b) partially supported
our expectations concerning core self-evaluations (Hypothesis 2). Model 2a confirms the
expected negative association between CSE and impostor tendencies (β = -.71, p < .001). The
CSE higher-order construct accounted for 49% of the variance in impostor tendencies, over
and above control variables, F(1,193) = 195.86, p < .001. Taking a closer look at the CSE
components separately (Model 2b), we can see that the expected negative association was
confirmed for self-efficacy (β = -.50, p < .001) and emotional stability (β = -.25, p < .01), but
not for LOC and self-esteem (β = -.13 and .04 respectively, p > .05). Moreover, the four CSE
traits accounted for 54% of the variance in impostor tendencies, F(4,190) = 60.10, p < .001.
Consistent with our expectations (Hypothesis 3), Model 3 shows that impostor
tendencies are positively related to maladaptive perfectionism (β = .74, p < .001) and
negatively to adaptive perfectionism, (β = -.28, p < .001). Together, both perfectionism scales
account for 42% of the variance in impostor tendencies, F(2,192) = 75.28, p < .001.
In a second step, the associations of all (lower-order) personality variables with
impostor tendencies were investigated simultaneously, taking into account the interrelations
between the personality constructs (see Model 4 in Table 3). The results first indicate that the
entire set of personality traits accounted for 59% of the variance in impostor tendencies, over
and above the variance accounted for by control variables. Moreover, only two individual
traits, namely self-efficacy (β = -.40, p < .001) and maladaptive perfectionism (β = .28, p <
.001), remained significantly associated with impostor tendencies in this model. In order to
determine the relative importance of each of the correlated personality traits for predicting
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 21
impostor tendencies, a relative weight analysis (Tonidandel & LeBreton, 2011) was also
conducted (see column 3 in Model 4). In the presence of multicollinearity, relative weights
supply meaningful estimates of variable importance, while standardized regression weights
and other traditional statistics are inadequate in such circumstances (Tonidandel & LeBreton,
2011). The reported percentages give an indication of the contribution that each personality
trait makes to the R² in the presence of the other correlated traits. The results confirm that self-
efficacy (24.1%) had the highest relative importance among the investigated predictors,
followed by maladaptive perfectionism (19.9%) and Neuroticism/emotional stability (15.7%).
Openness was identified as the least important predictor (0.7%). Note that for these analyses
we included the four individual CSE traits rather than the CSE higher-order construct. We
believe that this “narrow” approach better serves the aim of sharpening our understanding of
the IP as a maladaptive personality style, as it enables us to explore the unique value of each
of the self-evaluations in predicting the IP. Also, it is important to point out that the trait
Neuroticism/emotional stability was only included once in this relative weight analysis.
Finally, in order to demonstrate the distinctiveness and the unique contribution of the
investigated personality variables, we additionally conducted a hierarchical regression
analysis in four steps. Controls were entered (Step 1) followed by Big Five traits (Step 2),
higher-order CSE (Step 3), and perfectionism (Step 4). Incremental validities obtained from
this analysis show that CSE adds significantly to the prediction of impostor tendencies (∆R² =
.07) beyond Big Five traits, and perfectionism adds significantly over and above Big Five
traits and CSE (∆R² = .06).
Work-related Outcomes Associated with Impostor Tendencies
Next, a series of four hierarchical regression analyses were conducted to investigate the
associations between impostor tendencies and each of the four work-related outcomes. In each
of these regression models, control variables were entered in a first step, followed by impostor
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 22
tendencies in a second step. The results presented in Table 4 partially confirmed our
expectations (Hypothesis 4). Specifically, impostor tendencies are negatively related to job
satisfaction and OCB (β = -.29 and -.35 respectively, p < .001), and positively to continuance
commitment (β = .22, p < .01). The expected negative association with affective commitment
(Hypothesis 4c) was not significant (β = -.11, p > .05).
Further, we also explored whether impostor tendencies relate significantly to the work
outcomes, after controlling for the various personality variables. The results of the
hierarchical regressions indicated no significant increases in R2 when IP tendencies were
added to the regression models, suggesting no incremental validity of the IP for each of the
Buffering Effect of Workplace Social Support
Hierarchical regression analyses were used to test the moderation hypotheses. To reduce the
problem of multicollinearity as much as possible and to make the interpretation of the
regression coefficients more meaningful, centered values were calculated for the moderator
variable and the independent variable prior to the analyses. The control variables (i.e., sex,
age, education, organizational level and employment sector) were entered in a first step,
followed by the centered independent variable (i.e., impostor tendencies) and moderator
variable (i.e., workplace social support) in a second step, and the interaction term of the
centered independent variable and moderator in a third and final step.
The buffering hypothesis (Hypothesis 5) was partially confirmed. Significant
moderation effects were found in the present study for job satisfaction (Hypothesis 5a; b =
.30, p < .001) and OCB (Hypothesis 5b; b = .15, p < .01). Figure 1 illustrates that when social
support is low, strong impostor tendencies are associated with low job satisfaction and less
OCB. In contrast, when social support is high, impostor tendencies do not have a negative
effect on either job satisfaction or OCB. For affective and continuance commitment
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 23
(Hypotheses 5c and 5d), these moderation effects were nonsignificant (b = .12 and b = .06
respectively, p > .05).
This study aimed to increase our knowledge about the nature of the IP, and to gain an
understanding of how this phenomenon could be relevant in the work context. To this end, we
addressed three central research questions: (1) How is the IP related to a broad range of
personality traits?; (2) How is the IP related to relevant work-related outcomes?; and (3) Can
workplace social support buffer the potential harmful effects of impostor tendencies? In order
to address these questions accurately, we abandoned the categorical approach to the IP
(differentiating between impostors and non-impostors) and used a dimensional perspective on
impostor tendencies instead. This shift aligns with the more general trend of conceptualizing
adaptive and maladaptive personality functioning as continua rather than as separate
categories (e.g., Wille & De Fruyt, 2014). A person is not either a narcissist or not (Campbell
& Miller, 2011), but can more accurately be described in terms of his or her score on an
underlying dimension of narcissistic tendencies. Similarly, there exists a wide range of
impostor tendencies in the population; variability that is largely ignored when a categorical
approach is used. This dimensional perspective on dysfunctional personality is particularly
useful for research in organizational contexts, where most individuals have middle-level
scores on these tendencies instead of extreme low or high scores. However, for ease of
comparison with prior work we also created a dichotomous variable, and found a base rate of
20% ‘categorized’ impostors in our adult working sample, which is -although still substantial-
noticeably lower than the prevalence rates obtained in student samples. By itself this finding
already suggests that our knowledge about the IP derived from research in student samples
might not automatically apply to workers’ impostor tendencies, and that additional research in
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 24
this area is warranted. The present study was one of the first to investigate how impostor
tendencies operate in actual work contexts.
Trait-Relatedness of the IP
This study first showed that the trait-relatedness of workers’ impostor tendencies is
considerable and cannot be overlooked. Big Five personality traits, CSE, and perfectionism
are important dispositional factors that give form to the impostor construct, explaining large
proportions of its variance. A relative weight analysis further indicated self-efficacy to be the
most important personality trait related to impostor tendencies, followed by maladaptive
perfectionism and Neuroticism. Interestingly, among the entire scope of personality traits
considered in this study, the more narrow constructs seemed to play a more prominent role in
the IP, relative to the general Big Five traits.
With regard to the Big Five traits, stronger impostor tendencies are associated with
higher scores on Neuroticism and with lower scores on Conscientiousness. Although we
found a relatively high correlation between IP tendencies and Extraversion, this association
failed to reach significance when taking account of the other Big Five traits. Interestingly, we
replicated the negative relationship between impostor tendencies and Conscientiousness.
Given that the IP is used to describe people who deliver superior work, this negative
association does not seem obvious at first sight. However, we argued that this could reflect a
lower score on the Conscientiousness-facet Competence, which deals with individuals’
believed coping ability. Importantly, however, Bernard and colleagues (2002) found
impostors to score lower on other Conscientiousness-facets as well, including Self-Discipline,
indicating that low Competence perceptions alone cannot fully account for this negative
association between impostor tendencies and Conscientiousness. We recommend future
researchers to use the complete NEO-PI-R for the assessment of the FFM traits, in order to
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 25
further disentangle the trait-relatedness of the IP, and particularly the complex effects of
Conscientiousness and its facets.
Furthermore, we found core self-evaluations to be strongly related to impostor
tendencies. Specifically, individuals with impostor tendencies are inclined to have lower CSE
scores, appraising themselves in a consistently negative manner across situations. Regarding
the CSE facets, we did not find a significant association between impostor tendencies and
self-esteem and LOC, at least not when it was considered along with the other self-
evaluations. Our findings might suggest that, compared to emotional stability and especially
self-efficacy, general self-esteem is too broad to capture aspects of workers’ impostor
tendencies. When using a more differentiated measure of self-esteem, it is possible that
impostors report a satisfactory self-esteem on most components, such as lovability and body
appearance, but report lower levels on components that appeal to work-related functioning,
such as competence. Despite the significant negative correlation with LOC, which suggests
that impostors indeed experience problems allocating success to their own accomplishments,
this effect disappeared when the other, more powerful effects of CSE traits were taken into
Besides the conceptual resemblance between self-efficacy and the IP, the current study
provides some empirical evidence that both constructs have a substantial overlap and,
therefore, we believe that a low self-efficacy judgment resides at the core of the IP. However,
we do not believe that the IP can be reduced to a low self-efficacy judgment. The IP, as
understood as a maladaptive personality style, incorporates more than a (set of) cognitive self-
evaluation(s). Other cognitive features such as maladaptive perfectionistic concerns, along
with emotional and behavioral features such as fear of being exposed and over-preparing tasks
also nourish the phenomenon, in addition to a low self-efficacy judgment. It is the complex
co-occurrence of these different but interrelated personality manifestations that form the
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 26
breeding ground of impostor tendencies, a phenomenon that -despite its underlying
complicatedness- is readily observable in the work context.
With regard to perfectionism, our results indicated that impostor tendencies are
positively associated with maladaptive perfectionistic tendencies, while a negative association
was found with the adaptive dimension of perfectionism. We therefore recommend future
investigators to take this differentiation into account.
Work Outcomes associated with the IP
The present study was the first to investigate the relationships between the IP and work-
related outcomes, and revealed that employees with strong IP tendencies (i) are rather
dissatisfied with their jobs, (ii) report less OCB, and (iii) express a stronger intention to stay
in the organization because the monetary, social and psychological costs associated with
leaving the organization are perceived as too high. Consistent with our expectations, we found
that the constant fear of being exposed as incompetent along with the reoccurring feelings of
anxiety and self-doubt are also reflected in lower levels of overall job satisfaction. Further, we
argued that the negative association between impostor tendencies and OCB could be
explained by a potential lack of contextual knowledge and skill, and a scarcity of personal
resources. Future research could deepen our understanding of this negative association
between IP tendencies and OCB by considering contextual knowledge and skill as mediators
of this association. Furthermore, including a measure of in-role performance next to the
assessment of extra-role behavior could test the scarcity-hypothesis. Regarding organizational
commitment, we found that employees with strong IP tendencies are inclined to report
stronger continuance commitment, but they are not necessarily less emotionally connected
with their organization. It is possible that they are highly engaged in their job, to prevent them
from being exposed as incompetent, which could make their identification with their
organization stronger in the long term. Saks (2006) for example found that job engagement is
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 27
positively related to affective organizational commitment. Future research could investigate
whether IP tendencies are indeed positively associated with levels of engagement, and
whether this mediates the association between the IP and affective commitment.
We further found that IP tendencies showed no incremental validity in the prediction of
our work-related outcomes beyond the effects of the various traits considered in this study.
Nevertheless, as was also argued in the introduction, our results concerning the IP are
meaningful and important because they help to clarify how a specific and recognizable
constellation of personality traits resorts an effect on relevant work outcomes. Too often in
the literature, dispositional effects on work-related outcomes are studied by considering the
isolated effects of individual traits separately. Conversely, the identification and labelling of
such trait constellations and their manifestation at work facilitates communication among
assessors, is helpful to design follow-up and intervention strategies, and can further be the
subject of theory building. Conceptually-speaking, the IP is comparable to the idea of the
‘entrepreneurship-prone personality profile’ (Obschonka, Schmitt-Rodermund, Silbereisen,
Gosling, & Potter, 2013), both referring to a constellation of personality traits with relevance
to understand behavior at work. This kind of multidimensional constructs gain extra meaning
and significance when considered holistically, rather than considered as a conglomerate of
single personality variables. The results of the present study show that the IP can be
conceptualized as a specific trait-configuration of low self-efficacy (i.e., self-doubt),
maladaptive perfectionism (i.e., unrealistic goal setting) and neuroticism (i.e., fear and worry);
and that this constellation of traits is related to relevant attitudinal outcomes, such as job
satisfaction, organizational commitment and OCB. Although the IP does not seem to
demonstrate incremental validity over a broad set of personality traits, the main advantage of
considering the IP in our theory, research, and practice is that it provides a way to
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 28
conceptualize the (recognizable) effects of various individual personality variables working in
on each other.
Social Support as a Buffer
A final aim of this study was to investigate the moderating role of workplace social
support in the relationships between impostor tendencies and work outcomes. Our results
indicated that, to a certain extent, social support can indeed act as a buffering variable in these
relationships. We specifically found that, when social support is high, the negative
relationships between impostor tendencies and satisfaction and OCB disappear. This suggests
that perceptions of strong workplace social support could be the key to temper some of the
negative effects of impostorism. We support Whitman and Shanine’s (2012) proposition that
this buffering effect could be due to the more adaptive coping mechanisms impostors use in
case of a high social support perception. Although we also expected social support to act as a
buffer in the relationship between impostor tendencies and continuance commitment, this
could not be confirmed. We found that high IP tendencies are associated with higher
continuance commitment, regardless of the level of social support at work. Impostors’ feeling
that they are not able to find a similar job when leaving their current job, might be so strong
that no buffering effect of social support occurs. Future research is warranted that explores
other potential conditions under which impostor tendencies could be triggered or tempered,
for instance using trait-activation theory (Tett & Burnett, 2003) as a guiding framework.
This study first revealed the specific traits that form a dispositional risk factor for the
development of impostor tendencies. Employees hampered by strong impostor tendencies,
could perhaps benefit from individual coaching programs, including cognitive behavior
exercises that focus on the alleviation of maladaptive perfectionistic concerns and the
enhancement of self-efficacy (Ilkhchi, Poursharifi, & Alilo, 2011; Lo & Abbott, 2013).
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 29
Further, the current study demonstrated that impostor tendencies can have an impact on
career-relevant attitudes, which could for instance be informative for career counselors. As
impostor tendencies can keep someone back from moving on to higher managerial levels
(Kets de Vries, 2005) or from moving to another organization (i.e., continuance commitment),
career transitions seem for example less likely for people scoring higher on the IP. Moreover,
extra attention could be devoted to the assessment of these trait configurations in employee
selection or development contexts. Taken into account that individuals with strong impostor
tendencies are often high-achieving persons with a successful career history, we do not claim
that applicants with impostor tendencies should be excluded from employment consideration.
Instead, as this study also highlighted how organizations might buffer potential adverse work
outcomes associated with impostor tendencies, the implementation of interventions designed
to (a) monitor and (b) enhance employees’ perceptions of workplace social support (e.g.,
through formal and informal feedback programs) seems particularly relevant when stronger
impostor tendencies are observed.
Finally, this study also has some limitations. First, a cross-sectional research design is
used, which makes it not possible to draw firm causal conclusions regarding the associations
that were observed. Second, and related, all variables in this study were measured using self-
reports, which may raise concerns regarding common method bias. More specifically, given
the nature of our central research variable (i.e. the IP, which is a tendency to downgrade
oneself), part of our findings could partially reflect underreporting effects. Two of our
findings deserve some additional attention in this regard. First, the negative association
between Conscientiousness and impostor tendencies was interpreted in the present study as a
true effect, namely that individuals with stronger imposter tendencies are less conscientious
compared to individuals with less pronounced impostor tendencies. However, an alternative
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 30
explanation could be that impostors perceive and describe themselves as lower on
conscientiousness, while in reality they are not. Perhaps impostors set very high standards for
themselves, and feel that they ‘cannot be conscientious enough’. As another example, it could
be that the negative association between impostor tendencies and OCB is also partially the
result of impostors discounting or minimizing any extra-role behaviors they engage in. Want
and Kleitman (2006), for instance, also suggested that impostors demonstrate a “gap” in the
assessment of their abilities and performance. Clearly, in order to empirically disentangle the
relative validity of true versus underreporting explanations of these intriguing findings, future
research can collect peer ratings of personality and co-worker assessments of (extra-role)
performance in addition to self-reports. A third limitation of our study is that three of our
scales had relatively low internal consistencies (i.e., LOC, self-efficacy and continuance
commitment). Although some researchers argue that the threshold may decrease to .60 for
exploratory research (e.g., Hair, Black, Babin, & Anderson, 2010; Robinson, Shaver,
Wrightsman, & Andrews, 1991), it needs to be acknowledged that the internal consistencies
are below the commonly-accepted threshold of .70, and that therefore, these results should be
interpreted with caution. Specifically, the most likely implication of these lower reliability
estimates is that the associations between these variables and for instance the IP are
underestimated. Finally, we acknowledge that the measurement of CSE, combining three
facets of the CSE scale with reversed Neuroticism, as measured with the NEO-FFI, is not
optimal. However, we believe that the added value of having an operationalization of CSE at
the higher-order level and a Cronbach’s alpha of .91 for the aggregated scale should justify
Nevertheless, the present study contributed to the understanding of the impostor
phenomenon by, for the first time in the literature, delving deep into the trait-relatedness of
this construct and by investigating potential correlates that are of high relevance in
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 31
organizational settings and for individual careers. The emerging picture confirmed a
substantial dispositional basis, highlighting the most fundamental personality building blocks
of this phenomenon. Further, initial evidence was provided for the potentially dysfunctional
nature of this fascinating trait configuration in a work context, underlining the importance of
future research on this topic.
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 32
Sample characteristics, distribution of impostor tendencies and percentage categorical
‘impostors’ of the full sample (N = 201) and within demographic categories of the sample
Note. aThe mean age of the sample was 36.11 years (SD = 10.18). bWe used the cut-off value
of 50 out of 80 to categorize someone as an ‘impostor’, based on the conventional cut-off
score of 62 (Holmes, Kertay, Adamson, Holland, & Clance, 1993) distinguishing ‘impostor’
from ‘non-impostor’ in the 20-item version of the CIPS (i.e., 100 (max. score in 20-item
version)/100 x 62 = 62; 80 (max. score in 16-item version)/100 x 62 = 50).
Finance & Accounting
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 33
Descriptive statistics and variable intercorrelations
5.Sector dummy 1
6.Sector dummy 2
Note. Bold values on the diagonal show the internal consistency of the relevant variable. Org. level = Organizational level; OCB = Organizational citizenship behavior;
aSex is dummy coded such that 0 = male and 1 = female. bcIn resp. 6 and 5 categories. dMaximal score is 80. eCSE including Emotional Stability. f Reversed
Neuroticism, as measured with NEO-FFI. gNegative correlations represent an external LOC/ positive correlations an internal LOC. *p < .05, **p < .01, †p < .001.
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 34
Summary of hierarchical regression analyses examining the associations between impostor tendencies and personality traits
Model 1: Big Five
Model 4: All personality
Control variables (Step 1)
Big Five traits (Step 2)
Core self-evaluations (Step 2)
Locus of controlc
Perfectionism (Step 2)
All personality traits (Step 2)
Note. Control variables, i.e. sex, age, educational level, organizational level and employment sector were entered in the first step of the regressions. For
Models 1 to 3, separate analyses were conducted for each personality taxonomy. In Model 4, all personality variables were entered together in step 2 of the
hierarchical regression. aPercentages give an indication of the relative importance of the independent variables in relation to impostor tendencies. bRelative
weights of the control variables were summed. cNegative coefficients represent an external LOC/ positive coefficients an internal LOC. *p < .05, **p < .01, †p
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 35
Hierarchical regression analyses examining the associations between impostor tendencies and
Sector dummy 1
Sector dummy 2
Sector dummy 1
Sector dummy 2
Note. OCB = Organizational citizenship behavior; Org. level= Organizational level. *p < .05,
**p < .01, †p < .001.
THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON 36
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Figure 1. Moderating effect of social support in the relationship between impostor tendencies
and job satisfaction (Panel A) and OCB (Panel B).
Weak impostor tendencies Strong impostor tendencies
Weak impostor tendencies Strong impostor tendencies