Friday, 11 September 2015

Self-doubting bosses prefer to delegate to self-doubting staff

It’s possible to earn great success in your professional career, rise to great heights, but all the while experience the "imposter phenomenon": the sense that your position is undeserved, your unmasking possible at any time. For people like this, who doubt their own abilities, it would seem wise to rely on others who are confident they can get things done. But new research published in Personality and Individual Differences suggests the opposite: the more prone managers are to that imposter feeling, the more they choose to delegate tasks to those who also feel unworthy.

Myriam Bechtoldt of the Frankfurt School of Management recruited 190 managers – all highly educated – and had them complete online surveys that measured their identification with imposterism, including feeling like a fake, attributing one’s current position to luck, and feeling unworthy of praise for past successes.

Following this, the managers had to decide how to delegate six work activities, half of which were routine, such as compiling a mailing list or organising an outing, while the remainder were more challenging, such as making an important presentation or developing a mission statement.

The four junior candidates available to complete these delegated tasks were described in short profiles, which presented them all as similar: all highly competent, all qualified, all hungry to prove themselves. They differed only in gender, and the fact that one male and female candidate were described as self-confident, whereas the other two were described as secretly doubting their abilities.

The results were clear: the higher a manager scored on feelings of imposterism, the more they preferred to delegate to another self-doubter, and this was true for tasks of all stripes.

Why did this happen? Bechtoldt believes it a simple matter of self-image. In the self-doubting candidates, imposter participants see some part of themselves, and prefer to rely on someone with a similar mindset – even though self-confident people are on average a surer bet, being more ambitious about outcomes and persevering more through problems.

It may also be that the participants feel the urge to give their counterparts a leg up the ladder, perhaps treating them as a proxy for their own journey, and trying to convince themselves that a self-doubting profile can still reliably succeed. I should note that Bechtoldt doesn’t see such a strategic motive at work, arguing that explanation would account only for delegation of the high impact activities, not the menial ones that were unlikely to raise anyone’s profile. Further study will tell.

Is this result good news or bad for a typical organisation? The fact that low-confident, high ability workers will be given a chance to prove themselves by like-minded superiors could be a source of relief – although if such people are favoured to take on duties of every sort, this could turn out to be a source of stress for them. More broadly, the result is another example of organisational cloning, where leaders look to stack their ranks with those who most resemble them, even though a degree of diversity - here, a mix of those who self-doubt and those who are self-sure – is what helps organisations flourish.


Bechtoldt, M. (2015). Wanted: Self-doubting employees—Managers scoring positively on impostorism favor insecure employees in task delegation Personality and Individual Differences, 86, 482-486 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2015.07.002

--further reading--
Feeling like a fraud: The psychology of the impostor phenomenon

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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