Across a variety of professions, many high-achieving people report the feeling that their accomplishments are the result of luck and contingency rather than individual skill and merit.
The identification of this “impostor syndrome” dates back to the 1970s, although its prevalence today is hardly surprising given the unprecedented specialization and explosion of technology at work.
In a recent essay in the Journal of Management Studies, we outline how the impostor syndrome is especially pervasive in one occupation: Management professors.
Management is a fairly recent social science, but for a number of reasons, academics in this field are particularly challenged by students, peers and fellow social scientists.
On a broader level, the added value of business school is itself being questioned. What impact would that have on aspiring academics?
Management: A young, interdisciplinary field
Compared with related fields like sociology, economics or psychology, management is a relatively new field — the Academy of Management, the biggest academic association in management, was established between the two world wars.
Since that time, though, management has become well-defined and rigorous area of study and research, with scholars publishing not only in their own fields, but also other social science journals, including the prestigious American Sociological Review or the American Economic Review. They have even published in more generalist journals like Science and Nature.
Management research, by nature, is interdisciplinary, drawing from multiple fields in humanities and social sciences and often bringing them together to generate novel contributions to research.
However, other social scientists still hold the bias that management is not a legitimate scientific field. Our experiences suggest that people, in general, do not give much credit to academic work in management, simply because it is most commonly (and prejudicially) considered as something that is practised rather than researched.
The incredulity extends to other audiences as well. When teaching in business schools, management scholars are exposed to students who are in the classroom because they want to enhance their performance or credentials in the business world.
That means management academics are often teaching executives who sometimes have a decade or more experience than they do. The challenge is convincing those executives that researchers have something to offer in a field in which they have less practical experience — or in some cases, none at all.
Despite being less recognized as a science than parallel fields, management scholarship has rapidly become hyper-competitive for junior scholars — the requirements to get a tenure-track job or tenure in the field have exploded.
As in any other field, academic superstars emerge, but the reference point is always a moving target: There will always be another scholar who is better published, with more practical experience and higher recognition.
All of those factors contribute to make early career management academics doubt their expertise, their contribution to society and the value of their work.
In the classroom, management academics are confronted by managers who believe theories and research geeks have nothing to teach them. For broader society and at the family dinner table, management academics are not considered as serious researchers.
Are there benefits to the Impostor Syndrome?
However, this impostor syndrome in management scholarship does not solely have negative consequences. In fact, it might even push academics in a virtuous direction. Management scholars want to feel proud of their work, which explains the recent appetite in the field for socially and practically useful work.
For example, by tackling “grand challenges” such as poverty alleviation, migration or climate change, the field has tried to make broad contributions to society and garner recognition in doing so. Management studies have, for example, explained how scientists can legitimately defend the existence of climate change when dealing with climate change deniers. Others have looked into the practices of refugee camps.
In the meantime, management scholarship has been pushed to show impact – in the U.K., for example, through the research assessment framework. In continental Europe, similar incentives are emerging for liaising with potential beneficiaries of management research.
With experience, management scholars also succeed in showing the contribution that social science can make to educating business students.
The broader value of management research
Theories of organization and management — toolboxes to understand and interpret new and existing phenomena, derived from the observation of data — can give an edge to even well-educated managers.
We do observe some areas that call for improvement though. As management scholars ourselves, we propose that our colleagues regularly engage with management practices. Sabbaticals present a terrific opportunity for academics to do a year of consulting or field work. Those experiences can help management academics build their legitimacy and to network, offering an escape from the ivory tower.
Management scholars, at the intersection of different fields, and with immense power and responsibility to shape future business leaders, should not hesitate to play the role of public intellectuals, challenging the orthodoxy of management but also going beyond managerial questions.
With the help of management scholars acting as public intellectuals, business schools can play their full social role — and finally and deservedly be recognized as valuable to society.