What leaders should do to fight impostor syndrome?


Hana showed up on her first day at work at a fast-growing startup full of excitement and optimism. But as she walked back to her car at the end of the day and the sun began to sink below the horizon, she couldn’t shake feelings of self-doubt and the feeling of being a cheater. “Why did they hire me anyway?” she wondered aloud to herself. “They must have made a mistake.”

She definitely deserved to be there and HR certainly didn’t make a mistake in making her an offer after an extensive interview process. Still, Hana’s feelings were all too real. And all too often.

Hana experienced something called “impostor syndrome.”

In their HBR article, “Stop Telling Women They Have Impostor Syndrome,” authors Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey define the phenomenon as “doubting your abilities and feeling like a scammer.”

Psychologist Pauline Rose Clance (one of the founders of the term “impostor phenomenon” in the 1970s) and Professor Gail Matthews found in their research that 70% of people have felt the impostor syndrome at some point in their career. CEO Howard Schultz and actress Natalie Portman have all admitted to feeling imposter syndrome at certain points in their careers, so it can affect anyone, although data shows its prevalence is mostly influenced by race, class, and gender, among others. identities.

So, if many of us will experience it, why do we keep thinking of impostor syndrome as an individual’s problem?

What if instead we saw it for what it really is: a systems problem where teams and organizations haven’t done enough to ensure talented and qualified people know they are valued and belong?

We need to stop thinking this is Hana’s fault for the impostor syndrome feeling. The problem lies with her team and employer who have not done enough to proactively and systemically ensure that she – and probably 70% of her colleagues! – don’t feel like impostor syndrome in the first place.

The impostor syndrome is not an individual’s problem, it is an organization’s problem. So how can you become a leader who actively engages and changes your organization to fight the imposter syndrome among your teammates?

Consistently remind people that they belong

As Hana’s example shows, a simple job offer is not enough to ensure a sense of belonging in your team. As a leader, you need to constantly remind people of the unique skills, capabilities, and perspectives they bring to the team. When in doubt, share this feedback more often than you would otherwise to make it clear: You hired your team for a reason and you believe in them and their ability to positively shape the future of your organization. You might have these thoughts in your head, but make sure you actively communicate them, and do so in a myriad of ways, from 1-on-1 conversations to praising a teammate in front of their colleagues. What feels like over-communicating here most likely isn’t, especially if someone starts to doubt themselves.

Create psychological safety

Make it safe for your individuals on your team to take risks and be themselves at work. Amy Edmondson, a management scientist at Harvard Business School, defines psychological safety as “a shared belief among team members that the team is safe from interpersonal risk-taking.” You, as a leader, can proactively create this culture by encouraging people to use their full identities and perspectives and showing that people are rewarded – not punished – for suggesting new ideas and suggestions, even if many of them inevitably do not. will work.

Walk the Talk about DEI efforts

We cannot fully understand imposter syndrome without looking at it through lenses of gender, race, and class, among other identities. For example, among the students I teach, I find that women, people of color, and first-generation students are more likely to have imposter syndrome than others — and even more so when these identities intersect. That’s why it’s so crucial to reframe how we view imposter syndrome not as an individual problem, but rather as a systemic one. Have representation on your team so that a single individual doesn’t feel like he or she is being forced to represent an entire group of people. Actively fight prejudice and discrimination within your team. Make it a point to elevate the perspectives of those from traditionally marginalized identities and create an environment where equality and inclusion are anchored in business practices.

It’s time we stopped thinking of imposter syndrome as an individual’s problem to solve, and instead see it as the systemic problem that it is. Hana deserves it – and so do we.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not Inc.com’s.


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