Derick Simmons and Jeff Bednar, Organizational Leadership and Strategy
Impostor Phenomenon (or Impostor Syndrome) is a psychological phenomenon in which individuals are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, persons with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. The primary purpose of our study is to identify and examine the potential antecedents and consequences of Impostor Phenomenon exhibited in the lives of students and professionals.
Previous research has demonstrated that Impostor Phenomenon is most prevalent among high-achievers in competitive organizations, institutions, or programs. Thus, our sample consists of undergraduate accounting students who are beginning the junior core. For almost twenty years now, the undergraduate and graduate accounting programs at BYU have been ranked in the top three in America. This kind of reputation is not easy to develop, and it is certainly difficult to maintain. To ensure the highest standards of performance, the School of Accountancy is extremely strict with regards to admissions—only students with the most impressive academic records are accepted. Although the school’s primary goals are to fulfill the aims of a BYU education, high barriers to entry make the program more competitive than many others on campus.
To begin developing an effective theory, we conducted 15 semi-structured interviews with students who had recently completed the junior core. Students were asked to rate themselves (on a scale of 1 – 10) on how frequently they experienced feelings associated with the phenomenon. Additionally, they were asked about how they responded to those experiences during the junior core and in other contexts. Every interview (approximately 30 minutes each) was recorded and later transcribed. We then coded the interviews toward identifying relevant antecedents, behavioral patterns, coping strategies, and emotional and social outcomes.
In addition to our qualitative analysis, we administered three surveys (using Qualtrics software) as a quantitative measure of the phenomenon. The surveys were completed by current accounting students at the beginning, middle, and end of their junior core experience. This allowed us to monitor temporal changes in students’ feelings, feedback, and performance. Survey items concentrated on levels of program satisfaction and social support, causes of stress, social comparison measures, and coping strategies and behaviors. With permission from the students, we collected performance data and paired survey responses with students’ grades. Student networks and social interactions were also measured as each student answered survey questions regarding every other student in the program. Each survey was completed by 230+ respondents—the total number of student responses, after all three stages, exceeded 700.
The qualitative and quantitative data clearly show that the Impostor Phenomenon is alive and well in the BYU accounting program. The most telling insight from the project, however, surfaced as we examined the students’ coping behaviors. Though students implemented a range of coping strategies, most of their responses can be grouped into two main categories: Escape Behaviors and Accountability Behaviors.
Escape Behaviors include any activity that was used to distract, numb, or entertain a student. Examples include sports, exercise, work, reading, video games, avoiding others, watching Netflix/television, etc. While some students reported exercising or working more to take a break from accounting, one student admitted that he would spend 7-8 hours a day playing video games to escape feelings of inadequacy. He said, “Video games didn’t make anything better. They just numbed the pain. I essentially made a full-time job out of escaping…” Another student confessed that he would spend 3-4 hours a day at the library pretending to study—to convince his roommate that he was a dedicated student who belonged in the accounting program.
Accountability Behaviors include any activity that a student used to honestly evaluate performance, refocus on personal goals, or ask for social support. Examples include analyzing feedback, calling parents or friends, reporting grades to a trusted other, making plans to improve performance, prayer or meditation, meeting with a professor, etc. Students who engaged in these behaviors—especially counseling with parents or professors, or with God in prayer—reported more manageable levels of stress. Many students reported feeling better after being transparent about their performance with others. These strategies allowed them to experience disappointments without feeling totally defeated.
Students who engaged in unhealthy Escape Behaviors observed negative trends in their own performance. One such student, who was on track to be accepted into the MAcc program, completely avoided others because of his feelings of inadequacy. During the second semester of the junior core, his grades dropped significantly. Because of his diminished performance throughout the second semester, he was not accepted into the graduate program. Conversely, students who engaged in Accountability Behaviors saw much fewer negative performance trends. They still experienced stress and displayed times of weakness; however, they were much more likely to accomplish their goals. Hence, resources and training surrounding effective coping strategies may prove helpful for future accounting students.
High achievers in the accounting program will likely feel discouraged, disappointed, and stressed during their junior core experience; however, social comparison and negative feedback can also cause some students to feel like frauds. Effects of the Impostor Phenomenon are real, but the negative consequences can be mitigated (and sometimes avoided) as students engage in coping strategies that align with Accountability Behaviors. Students who respond to the psychological state of perceived fraudulence by attempting to escape or numb the feelings see a decline in their performance and sense of self-efficacy.