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MIT Better World

By Stephanie M. McPherson SM ’11

As the Class of 1943 Career Development Professor and assistant professor of work and organization studies at the MIT Sloan School Management, Tewfik spends her days researching the phenomenon, which she defines as the belief that others think you know more than you think you do at work. “It’s a bit ironic to study this phenomenon—what I call workplace impostor thoughts. I often joke that it’s precisely when sharing my research or when people are asking for my insights on it when I, myself, have impostor thoughts. I think, ‘There is so much I don’t know and have yet to uncover,’ she says. ‘They may be overestimating my competence.’”

Tewfik opened her research lab to students through the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) in June 2020. This past spring, she was honored with the Outstanding UROP Mentor Award for the 2022–2023 academic year. Mentors are student-nominated based on the quality of their support and guidance, their availability, and their overall commitment to undergraduate research.

“I was really touched,” Tewfik says. “Honestly, my first thought was, ‘How lucky I am to be working with not only extraordinarily smart and fun undergrads but also such thoughtful ones.’”

Tewfik began studying sociality in the work environment as a junior at Harvard University. She worked with a psychology professor and graduate student studying participants while they played Mafia—a card game where one player is secretly a lethal crime boss and the rest of the players must suss out the guilty party. The experiment looked at whether players’ social perception, as noted through success in the game, correlated to leadership skills. Later, Tewfik dug into impostor syndrome during her doctoral studies in management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation was titled “Impostor Thoughts as a Double-Edged Sword: Theoretical Conceptualization, Construct Measurement, and Relationships with Work-Related Outcomes.”

“Somewhat counterintuitively, I had the hypothesis that having workplace impostor thoughts could be an interpersonal superpower,” she says. “After all, a lot of the people who seemed to claim to have experienced this phenomenon are often those who others seem to think are quite charming. Think Tina Fey, Oprah Winfrey, or Tom Hanks.”

Tewfik says she experienced impostor thoughts during her first job out of college in a management consulting firm, where she was required to present herself as an expert in a broad range of topics. “Interestingly, for those of us who had impostor thoughts, a lot of us got told things like ‘You’re great’ or ‘You’re fun to work with,’” she says. “This observation is consistent with my research findings. Those who have workplace impostor thoughts subconsciously adopt an orientation focused on others to compensate for our perceived deficiencies in competence.”

In other words, there seem to be social benefits to impostor syndrome, such as increased likability and interpersonal skills. Tewfik is also researching the functional benefits of certain neuroses for job performance, especially in the context of inconsistent engagement.

Tewfik’s research is particularly relevant as expectations on both sides of the manager-employee relationship have shifted significantly since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. In her lab, UROP students get a chance to explore that changing dynamic before going into the workplace.

Mentees start with tasks such as literature reviews, participant recruitment, proofreading, and generating research designs. As they gain more experience, Tewfik and her students tailor the work toward student interests. “UROPs provide students with the opportunity to cultivate deeper relationships with faculty and to delve into areas they might not otherwise be able to explore within the classroom,” says Tewfik. “Our students are so bright and so fun. It seemed like a no-brainer to team up with such a fabulous group on work that I deeply enjoy.”

Tewfik, who also teaches classes in negotiation, finds that mentoring takes teaching one step further. “With teaching, I tend to be focused on making sure students master a specific set of skills,” she says. “With a mentoring mindset, I am not only focused on teaching students new research skills but also on getting an understanding of my mentees’ broader interests so that we can work together to promote more comprehensive learning and growth.”

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