Naji Gehchan: Hello, leaders of the world. Welcome to spread love in organizations, the podcast for purpose-driven healthcare leaders, striving to make life better around the world by leading their teams with genuine care, servant leadership, and love.
I am Naji, your host for this podcast, having the pleasure to be joined by Basima Tewfik Career Development Professor and Assistant Professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan. Basima main stream of research examines the psychology of the social self at work. In particular, she seeks to define new conversations around two underexplored phenomena in the organizational literature that implicate the social self: Workplace impostor thoughts (popularly known as impostor syndrome), and request-declining at work. In a secondary stream of work, she examines effective employee and workgroup functioning in the modern workplace, an increasingly important topic given the rising complexity of work. Basima’s work has received several recognitions and she was named by Poets & Quants as a “40 Under 40” Best Business School Professor in 2021 and by Thinkers50 as one of 30 thinkers to watch in 2022. Prior to her graduate studies, Basima worked in consulting.
Basima – It is such an honor you with me today!
Basima Tewfik: Thank you so much for having me, Naji. It’s great to be.
Naji Gehchan: I’d love first to hear your personal story from psychology to consulting and now being a professor, a thinker on work and organization studies. What, what’s in between the line of your incredible journey?
Basima Tewfik: Yeah, that’s a great question. Uh, so, uh, it looks a lot more linear than it actually is. Uh, so this started back when I was an undergraduate. I started doing some research with a professor of psychology who was also affiliated with the business school. His name was Richard Hackman. He’s a big sort of person in leadership and teams research.
While I was doing that as an undergraduate, I really, really enjoyed it, but I sort of looked around my peers and a lot of peers were going into finance or consulting, and so I naturally said, obviously that’s what I’m going to do too. So I ended up going into consulting. But it was really when I was in consulting that sort of, the idea of going back to school and potentially being a professor really came to light.
Um, and this was in part because I realized as I was going to client sites, uh, that I was much more interested in examining the dynamics. Of my own teams when we were at different, different states, um, and different countries, then I was actually helping the clients. Um, and so that indicated to me that I probably should be focusing my efforts on understanding workplace dynamics.
And so I ended up reaching back out to my undergraduate advisor, um, who was nice enough to write me a recommendation letter. And that sort of, uh, catapulted my journey back into Accu.
Naji Gehchan: I love it. So let’s dig into your research. What your thoughts or what’s known imposter syndrome. Uh, big topic, rarely discussed, I would say, but big topic in many of our minds.
Can you first help us maybe define it and why you talk about thoughts versus syndrome and your, your ideas around it.
Basima Tewfik: Yeah, let’s, let’s jump right into it. Uh, so the idea of studying this phenomenon came to me very early, uh, in my PhD exactly for the reason that you mentioned, which is this is something that we often hear about.
Maybe people aren’t actually necessarily sort of telling their supervisors or their, their subordinates that they’re experiencing this phenomenon. But it’s definitely something that many, many people think or feel. So I think statistics show that maybe up to 70% of people tend to have what I call workplace imposter thoughts.
Um, so what do I mean when I say workplace imposter thoughts? I basically mean that it captures the belief that others overestimate your talent or abilities at work. So specifically a sample sort of statement to really bring that to light, to make it concrete is this idea that I think other people think I’m smarter than I think I.
And as a result, this could lead to a number of emotions or thoughts or a sense of belonging, but really it’s about this discrepancy that I think people maybe think I’m a 10 when it comes to, uh, how competent I am at work. And it’s not necessarily that I think I’m bad at work, so it’s not like I think I’m a three, but maybe, I think I’m like an eight.
And so there’s this positive discrepancy where I think people are overestimating me. The reason I use the term thoughts and not syndrome. Or, or even phenomenon, uh, was actually something that was carefully thought through. So if you look at the academic literature, um, this was first introduced in 1978.
Uh, interestingly in that literature, they always refer to it as imposter phenomenon. But if you Google, um, you’re gonna see that the popular term is imposter syndrome. And syndrome implies that sort of, this is a medical diagnosis. Uh, you have a healthcare background, . Um, and one of the big things about this is it’s not a syndrome.
It’s not a medical diagnosis. This is not something that people always have. Um, and so it really became clear to me that we have to be much more precise with the terminology if we’re going to start a new conversation around this phenomenon. Hence my term of workplace imposter.
Naji Gehchan: Yeah. And I love how you framed it.
Uh, you know, and another thing, I obviously definitely have imposter thoughts, and frequent ones. And I’m always surprised we talked about it even within my team a couple of weeks ago, and many have it actually, and sometimes we don’t say it even in, and even more in technical jobs I feed, sometimes it can become a thing and people don’t really talk about it.
Um, you know, another, another sentence I’m sure you heard a lot is this fact. One day they’ll figure out, you know, that I’m the impostor and why they, you know, I’ll, I’ll, they will know. Uh, so I’m, I’m interested a little bit more from your research. You know, is it a bad thing? Is it a bad thing of having those thoughts?
Like how, how do you deal with it and what have you, uh, seen in the, the research you’ve done?
Basima Tewfik: Yeah, so, so the general sort of consensus or prevailing wisdom, I would say is that it’s a bad thing, and that’s really not surprising, right? So even if you think about the term imposter that conjures imagery of, you know, a bad, a person who’s trying to fake it or something like that, right?
So it has negative connotations. Um, and so most of the research, most most practitioners suggest that it’s a bad thing. Um, You know, there is some sort of research to support that in the sense that people who have these thoughts generally might have more anxiety or lower self-esteem. So there tends to be these correlations, right, with negative wellbeing outcomes.
Um, but my interest in the phenomenon actually came from the fact that most people who report having these thoughts or, or let’s say a lot of people who report having these thoughts are actually high. When we hear about this phenomenon, we hear about it happening in C-suites of top companies. Um, Albert Einstein is someone who’s claimed to have had these thoughts and, you know, he is synonymous with the word genius.
And so this sort of indicates, hey, maybe we don’t have a full perspective or a holistic picture of what this phenomenon is. And that’s sort of what kicked off my whole interest, uh, in trying to create this more holistic picture.
Naji Gehchan: So can you tell us more about it? Because you’ve done very serious randomized research, so obviously I’m in healthcare.
When I saw your research I was like, oh, like this is serious. So I’d love to hear more what, what, what was the outcome and the methodology of what you’ve done.
Basima Tewfik: Yeah. So let’s talk about, um, maybe one of my most recent papers that looks at how workplace imposter thoughts relates to the important workplace outcome of interpersonal effectiveness, um, while keeping sort of job performance in mind, right?
Because obviously we wanna make sure that there’s no downsides for competence related outcomes. So a lot of my research, just as at a high level, combines correlational studies in the field. So I actually go into organizations to try and find associations between imposter thoughts and outcomes of interest.
Um, and then I tend to pair these with causal experiments so that I can get at exactly what you were talking about earlier, which is this idea of making sure that you know it’s specifically imposter thoughts. It’s actually leading to the outcomes that I’m hypothe. So for one of my papers, I was really interested, uh, in trying to understand if and why, um, people with more imposter thoughts are actually gonna be rated as more interpersonally effective.
So I ran four studies. The first study was actually in a finance firm, and that was sort of a, you know, a simple test of this idea, right? Would I find people who have more imposter thoughts? Would, would I find that their supervisors would rate them as more interpersonally effective? And what was super interesting is at time one I had.
Finance employees rate their imposter thoughts using a measure that I created and then two months later I had their supervisors rate them on how interpersonally effective they were. I also had them rate their, their employees on how well they were doing at their job, right? Because we wanna make sure that this interpersonal effectiveness benefit doesn’t necessarily come at the cost of compete.
And so what I found there was, was really promising. So I found this really robust, significant positive effect between having imposter thoughts at time one and other people seeing us smart, interpersonally effective. And so this led me into a second study. Um, and this study I was, I was really excited about it because it was actually at a patient simulation.
So specifically I partnered with a medical school and they have these simulation centers where their physician trainees actually interact with actors who are stimulating as if they have a particular illness. Um, and they often video record these interactions. And what’s really, really cool about these, uh, interactions is they’re, they’re standardized.
So what I mean by that is all of these patients have gone through a training, they’re all making sure that they’re interacting with physicians in the exact same. And so it was this nice hybrid of, you know, very organizational in the field with a little bit more control over what was going on. And there, what I found is those physician trainees who said that they experienced imposter thoughts more frequently.
Actually ended up interacting with patients quite well. So specifically patients gave them higher interpersonal effectiveness ratings. So specifically they said things like, oh, I really felt that the physician was empathizing with me. I really thought they were listening. Well, I really thought they were sort of answering my questions Well.
Um, but what was also really cool is the fact that these were video recorded because it allowed me to see what exactly was going on. How were these patients suddenly deciding that the physicians with more frequent imposter thoughts were actually these more interpersonally skilled physicians. And so I ended up recruiting several coders and we watched, uh, these videos, which was approximately 5,000 minutes of video, where we would stop the video every minute to see what was going on.
Um, and basically what we found is those physicians who had more frequent imposter thoughts, Were also those physicians who noded a lot more. Uh, they sort of practiced more active listening skills. Um, they had better eye contact. They had a more sort of considerate tone as compared to those physicians with less frequent imposter thoughts.
And as a result, that was leading to, uh, higher ratings of interpersonal effectiveness. And they weren’t getting the diagnosis in. So we also wanted to make sure, okay, maybe these physicians are really interpersonally effective, but they’re really bad doctors. Like maybe you don’t want them cause they’re not actually gonna diagnose you.
And we didn’t find that to be the case. And then I followed up those two studies with some experiments to actually get at causality where I actually manipulated some people to have imposter thoughts and then looked at how other focus they were. Um, and then whether that explained essentially how interpersonally affected, and I found that to be.
Naji Gehchan: That, that’s great. So to to my question, is it a bad thing now that you’ve looked at this, you’ve seen the interpersonal, uh, effectiveness coming out? Like how, how, how do, would you answer this question? Should I be reassured?
Basima Tewfik: Yeah, so this is a great question because it gets at this idea, okay, what are the implications?
What are the takeaways here? And I actually think we have to be really subtle and precise with what the takeaway should be. So one thing I want to emphasize right off the bat is, although I didn’t find that, you know, in the finance sample, they ended up performing worse, or in the doctor sample, they ended up getting in correct diagnoses.
I wanna make sure that we’re not over. Um, so reading into non findings, right, it’s a non-significant finding. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always gonna be non-significant. Um, so for me it means a couple things. It means as a manager, um, you know, if I have an employee who has imposter thoughts, Um, you know, I want to assess the employee in its in their entirety.
So what I mean by that is I wanna think about three sets of outcomes. I wanna think about my employees wellbeing outcomes. I wanna think about their confidence outcomes, and I wanna think about their interpersonal outcomes. And so if my employee is in a setting, like the ones that I studied, so there were opportunities for interpersonal interaction.
Maybe their, you know, performance is a little bit more subjective, then maybe I might say, Hey, the takeaway shouldn’t be, get rid of your imposter thoughts. Cause actually, if you get rid of your imposter thoughts, maybe you won’t have this interpersonal benefit and it doesn’t necessarily hurt you from a competence perspective.
That being said, there’s the elephant in the room about wellbeing. Imposter thoughts still don’t make you feel really great when you have it. Um, and so this means to me of, okay, so let’s imagine a different employee, maybe an employee who’s working remotely and doesn’t interact a lot with other people.
Then we might wanna consider for that employee that maybe they, they should get rid of their imposter thoughts. Because for them there’s no way for them to get the interpersonal benefit. They’re probably gonna get the wellbeing, cost, and competence right now is a wash. It’s not necessarily gonna be good for your competence.
Um, and so what I’m hoping is that people have a lot more of a sort of tailored approach to managing this phenomenon. Now if we think about it from the perspective of the employee themselves, um, what I hope this research does is sort of indicates to those individuals who are experiencing the, these imposter thoughts that maybe they’re not so bad.
Maybe we can reappraise our thoughts so that we sort of downplay the negative emotions that comes with them so that we can focus on sort of the upsides that may also accompany.
Naji Gehchan: I love it. This is really super helpful tips and kind of situational, right, like situational managerial, uh, depending on, on people.
And I love how you framed also the wellbeing. It’s really a very important point in this hybrid virtual word. Um, that’s, that’s really super helpful. Uh, you know, one, one thing that keeps coming to mind, um, and you kind of mentioned it a little bit, uh, is those imposter thoughts. If, if we have this overachiever.
Someone who really is doing good and he wants to overachieve, are these imposter thoughts actually driving people to be at their best sometime. And my other kind of related question is, is it also kind of related or. Putting me a check from a humidity standpoint, like, did, did you look at kind of humidity?
And also, if we combine this with overachieving, then it’s really good because people are gonna keep on trying to be better on what they think. They’re not as good as they should be.
Basima Tewfik: Yeah. Nearly. It’s almost like you have a, a magnifying glass into my current research pipeline. . Um, so. Talk about your first, uh, statement, which is sort of connecting this phenomenon of imposter thoughts to ever, um, like do you work harder?
Uh, so what’s really interesting in the literature is there seems to be mixed intuitions about when people with imposter thoughts work harder or when they sort of procrastinate and withdraw. Um, one of my current projects is trying to understand under what conditions, so thinking about sort of job characteristics.
So, you know, do you have a lot of a high workload? Do you have a really complex job? Is it maybe when your role is particularly salient that would necessarily explain when you suddenly do well versus when you suddenly do not do well? Um, from an effort standpoint, I think it’s an open question. I think it’s a.
Uh, you know, a ripe, fertile ground to explore. Um, I’d love to tell you in about two months what the answer is. Um, but in general, my intuition is that people with imposter thoughts do, uh, exert a lot of effort. Now, the bigger question though, is again, with, with sort of painting this more holistic picture, it’s always really important to think at what costs right as and to ask that question.
And so if I’m telling you, Hey, my intuition is that people with imposter thoughts might work really hard, well, one question you may have is, well, does that lead to burnout? Um, some of my preliminary evidence suggests that the increased effort doesn’t necessarily lead to more burnout. But, um, there are always usually positive correlations between people who have imposter thoughts and their report of burnout.
Part of this might be due to halo effects, so if I’m someone who thinks or I have imposter thoughts, so I report, I have imposter thoughts, I’m probably much more likely to report also negative outcomes. I might be more likely to report that I’m also anxious, I might be more likely to report that I’m also exhausted at.
And so that’s why causal experiments are really important to start to tease, uh, these sort of concepts apart. Which also relates to your part two of your question. So you asked about the relationship between humility and imposter thoughts. Um, and this is, this is a fantastic question. So my paper is one of the sort of first papers, particularly in our top organizational journals, to really reco conceptualize this phenomenon.
And as part of that exercise, you really have to go through a, a sort of, um, a whole rigamarole, a very good rigorous rigamarole to start to say is imposter thoughts. This is it, this is it. This, to make sure that you’re not adding a construct that’s redundant with what we already know. So one that often comes up is this idea of humil.
So is our people who say, oh, I think other people think I’m smarter than I think I am. Are they just humble people? Um, so to this, I actually turned to Owens’s work. Uh, he is someone who studies humility in the organizational space. Um, and what’s really interesting about humility is it’s. A construct that captures much more than this idea of discrepancy between what other people think of me and what I think of myself.
So typically humility is wrapped up with things like, you know, your limits. So you sort of know your weaknesses and your strengths, and so you’re able to sort of make those assessments. Um, and so I do think that there’s probably a correlation between being humble and people have imposter thoughts, uh, but I do think they’re distinct things.
This also leads to another thing that that often comes up. So I mentioned to you at the beginning that 70% of people tend to experience these thoughts. So one question I often get is, well, who are the 30%? Um, I usually don’t like answering that question because the 30%. Uh, could be a number of different, uh, different types of people.
Um, so some might be people who are not particularly reflective. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just people who aren’t necessarily thinking about what other people think of them. Um, and to them, I’m very proud of them and hope that they maintain that sense of self. Um, it could also be people who are over competent, confident, so people who are over competent.
Have the opposite problem. They’re, they’re, they’re not particularly humble. They think that they are better maybe than their actual performance or better, uh, than they think other people think they’re, and very
Naji Gehchan: quick question before we go into another subject. Uh, any differences in gender and cultural differences with imposter thought?
Basima Tewfik: Yes. Um, so the gendered question often comes up. So one of the big things around this phenomenon is that women tend to experience this more than men. What’s really interesting is that in my own data and also in a systematic review by, um, Dr. Bravada, that’s actually not the case. Um, so there are actually a number of studies to suggest that this is not necessarily more prevalent for one gender over another.
Um, it’s not necessarily more prevalent for one race over another. And so what I’m hoping is that we start to move the conversation from who’s experiencing this is one particular gender, experiencing this more to under what conditions might people of different genders maybe respond to these thoughts in different ways?
Um, so it’s definitely where I think the field is moving, but we’re still in the process of trying to dispel some myths that are, that are very popular. Right? Yeah. Which takes a lot of time to essentially bring them down. Um, from a culture perspective, it’s a really interesting question. This is something I want to explore further.
Um, there’s a couple things I can say. So, for example, if you look up this phenomenon on like Google Trends and you sort of map out who’s searching for this phenomenon, it tends to be primarily Western. So you tend to see the search, the searches happening in Western Europe, Canada, United States. Does this mean it’s not happening, uh, in other parts of the world?
Maybe. Um, I, I think that’s definitely something to explore. I definitely think it’s still happening, but what might be going on is people might refer it or see it in different ways, uh, potentially healthier ways, right? Maybe they’re not searching this concept because they actually think this is part of life, and so they’re not trying to figure out, how do I get over my imposter syndrome?
Naji Gehchan: for those. I, I’d love to go now to another feed you explore, which is effective employees and work group functioning, uh, especially in this new word that we are living in. Uh, and I’m gonna be very specific asking for maybe one or two advices that you would, uh, give us as leaders to ensure effectiveness and teamwork in our
Basima Tewfik: organiz.
Yeah, I think that the biggest thing for me, it’s probably just one, um, and actually very basic, but it’s really listening. Um, so part of, part of actually what I love about your podcast is this idea of spreading love and, and sort of paying attention to those in your environment. I think at the end of the day, work is about relat.
To the extent that you can sort of approach everything at work as relational relationship building, um, the better off you are. So for example, at Sloane, I teach a negotiations class to MBAs. And the biggest thing, and what I say on day one is that negotiations is about relationships. It’s not about winning.
It’s not about losing. I make a joke in Class six about how you can use everything that we’re teaching in this class to apply to romantic relationships at home. Um, because essentially it’s, it’s all the same. So I really want people to think about relationships and prioritize that because the rest will follow.
Naji Gehchan: Yeah. And, and it’s, it’s so true. And sometimes it’s tough for people to accept it, right? Like the more technical you are, the toughest it is to like, no, like, we don’t need to build relationship. We know exactly what you wanna do, right? So I, I love this advice. Um, I, I would love now to give you words and get your reaction to it.
Basima Tewfik: Okay. That sounds fun. I, I grateful to see these words or two,
Naji Gehchan: words. So the first word is leader.
Complicated. Oh, it’s the first time I get this reaction. Tell me
Basima Tewfik: more. Uh, so I think, uh, to be a really good leader, you probably don’t actually want to be a leader. So there’s some great research, um, that was done at dissertation work by a professor named Danielle Tess, um, on this idea of reluctant leaders.
And it’s really something that’s really resonated with me, which is I think the best leaders are often those who are most reluctant to take the mantle.
Naji Gehchan: request decline?
Basima Tewfik: Can I use three words in response or does it have to be a one word reaction to reflect?
Naji Gehchan: No. Yeah. No. You can, you can, you can talk about it a little bit more. I was so intrigued with this research, so you can talk more .
Basima Tewfik: Uh, I would say my reaction to the phenomenon of request declining is it should be more prevalent.
So request declining is the idea. That you should say no to more requests that are on your plate. And the reason that I study this phenomenon is that a disproportionate amount of helping at work is actually done by a a few number of people. And so if they’re really going to be effective in giving help, they need to be able to prioritize among the requests that they have.
And so, and I think it’s really important that, and we should be more willing to say,
Naji Gehchan: This is definitely a big phenomena we, we all see. Right? Especially if you combine overachieving with people delivering. Uh, yeah. So one of the things, um, I stopped prioritizing, I don’t know if you agree with me on this. I stopped prioritizing and I started to make choices. Like I, I really push my, you know, my teams that make a choice that if you’re doing this, then you’re not doing something else.
Basima Tewfik: I, I think that sounds great. I think that’s, uh, if you can get there, I think that’s a bold, bold new frontier that more people should move into.
Naji Gehchan: Thank you. I’m trying. I’ll let you know. . Yeah, I
Basima Tewfik: was like, report back .
Naji Gehchan: What about social self?
Basima Tewfik: Uh, I think it’s under prioritized. Um, and it’s the same reason for what I was telling you earlier, that I think relationship building is really important.
I think when we think of the self, uh, we tend to think of, especially the self at work, we tend to really think about, you know, how smart we are, how well we’re doing our talks. Um, and we tend to downplay how we’re interacting with others or, um, what our relationships are like.
Naji Gehchan: The final one is Fred Love and organizations.
Basima Tewfik: I, so when I heard about this, uh, I think, uh, there would be a late professor, her name is Al Bar, who would be absolutely thrilled to hear that you’re doing this, um, this podcast she has, she passed away last year. She was fantastic. She’s at Wharton. Um, she has a paper on companion love in organiz.
So one of the big ideas that she’s left in the field, um, is sort of this idea that we need to have more love at work, um, and love, not romantic love, companion love this idea of affection and caring for others, um, and showing that that leads to really positive downstream outcomes at work. Uh, thank you so
Naji Gehchan: much for, for sharing this and honoring all her work.
Any final word of wisdom, uh, Basma for us leaders around the.
Basima Tewfik: I think it is, um, continued to aspire even if it is complicated. So I think being a leader, going back to what I said earlier, it’s a hard job. Uh, it’s not for the faint of heart. Um, and it’s a continuous learning process. So adopting a growth mindset as you sit in that position, uh, can be incredibly helpful, especially given the impact that you have on so many.
Naji Gehchan: Well, thank you so much. It was really an honor and a pleasure to talk to you and learn more, uh, about your research and all that you’ve done. Thanks so much for being with me today.
Basima Tewfik: Thank you so much for having me.
Naji Gehchan: Thank you all for listening to spread love and organization’s podcast. Drop us a review on your preferred podcast platform
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