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Spotting and tackling Imposter Syndrome in your team: How managers can help their employees overcome it

Imposter Syndrome
Topic: 

Advice for overcoming imposter syndrome is usually aimed at the individual filled with doubt and feeling like a fraud. In this article, we’ll take a broader approach and look at what you as a manager can do to support anyone on your team whose mindset is preventing them from developing their full potential. 

A recent survey found that 87% of women in business (spanning senior employees, CEOs and company founders) experience symptoms of imposter syndrome.i Levels of self-doubt and low confidence in successful women is not unusual; in fact, imposter syndrome is more likely to occur in high achievers who find it difficult or even impossible to internalise and accept their achievements. Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, has admitted that her imposter syndrome “never goes away”.  

 

Why should you take up the mantle of helping Imposter Syndrome sufferers?  

Whether or not you’re experiencing imposter feelings of your own, reaching out and helping others who struggle with limiting beliefs is the action of a strong, caring and emotionally-intelligent mentor and leader. But coaching a sufferer isn’t simply an act of kindness — it’s also good business sense; imposter syndrome impedes both individual and team performance, and furthermore, those employees with imposter feelings are often the best, most conscientious employees in the company. So stepping in and looking after them before they become demotivated, burned-out and exhausted is critical for business success. 

The good news is that a smart manager is able to help turn imposter syndrome into a positive. After all, its driving force is fear, and fear can be a huge motivator for improvement. Dealing with imposter feelings can inspire better communication between you and your employee, and smarter, more efficient working practices.  

 

Learn to recognise the signs in your team 

Imposter syndrome can be complex, manifesting in a number of, sometimes not-so-obvious ways. A person ‘feeling like a fraud’ may present as fatigued, dissatisfied, anxious or even depressed. They may appear to lack motivation, or, conversely, they may seem super ‘on it’, peddling as hard as they can to prove their worth. Either scenario creates an unhealthy work-life balance, as individuals work overtime to get things done, and/or take their feelings and anxieties about work performance into family and leisure time. The vicious circle at play here is obvious.  

Even an employee who normally operates doubt-free may experience imposter feelings in the current world order. Covid-19 has forced many of us to adapt to a whole new working environment. Operating away from the cut and thrust of office challenges and interactions, being isolated from colleagues and support networks, and juggling career and family responsibilities, can all lead to excess self-reflection. In this mindset, imposter syndrome can thrive.  

Something for managers to be particularly mindful of is that science tells us that imposter syndrome impacts diverse groups the hardest. If you feel like an ‘outsider’ in your working environment, that can fuel your sense of being a fraud. Women, for example, are more prone to imposter feelings than men. The gender pay gap sends a message that they are valued less, and when women operate in largely male teams, that sense of not belonging can reinforce limiting beliefs.  

Furthermore, studies show that women in male-dominated environments are more likely to put achievements and successes down to ‘luck’ or ‘good timing’ than ability or effort. Dr Andrea Utley from the University of Leeds, UK, explains: ‘Women and underrepresented groups are more likely to be questioned regularly by others (“Are you sure that is right?”), with negative assumptions made about their abilities (“It’s very technical — maybe we should ask Tom?”). This subsequently limits the roles they are given and lowers their confidence.’ 

Another sign to look out for: Employees suffering imposter syndrome may openly express their fear of incompetence — something that might manifest in self-deprecating language. But you might need to look deeper. Is there a high performer in your team who avoids high-exposure projects? Who doesn’t put their hand up or accept promotions, despite being capable, talented and ambitious? Do they appear uncomfortable with praise, or push away compliments, attributing success to others or as a ‘fluke’? Do they constantly compare themselves unfavourably to peers? Appear sceptical when you encourage them to take on something new? 

It can be awkward to talk to your boss if you’re suffering from imposter feelings, so if you want to have those kinds of conversations with your team, so you’ll need to demonstrate your empathy — that your door is open and that you are receptive to listening and understanding. Another thing to consider is that you may need to show vulnerability first before expecting it to be reciprocated.   

Offering frequent performance feedback to individuals can be hugely beneficial in alleviating imposter syndrome. Positive feedback and praise will need to have concrete supporting evidence. Encourage your employees to focus on their work in process, not just the outcome. Set weekly and monthly goals with a clear path to getting there, then review these together.  

Dr Andrea Utley’s 10 top tips you can implement to combat imposter syndrome in your team. 

  1. Acknowledge that imposter syndrome exists and that it’s normal. 
  2. Educate the workforce and line managers about conscious and unconscious biases. 
  3. Assess and challenge the diversity — or lack of — in senior roles and the company as a whole. 
  4. Challenge stereotypes. 
  5. Organise appropriate mentoring for all. 
  6. Ensure that there’s a commitment to developing all individuals to their full potential. 
  7. Get feedback from employees about their work environment. 
  8. Recognise that people are different and demonstrate skills in different ways. 
  9. Put as much effort into developing others as you do into your own development. 
  10. Praise all employees but remember that individuals with imposter syndrome will assume you are exaggerating, so provide facts and evidence. 
 
Learn more: 

This playlist of TED talks is all about fighting imposter syndrome.  

Read The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young