Ideally, employees across the globe would start every day feeling like they could take on the world. Unfortunately, far too many workplaces are hampered by the short- and long-term effects of something called impostor syndrome.
So what exactly is impostor syndrome? It’s the overarching feeling that you don’t deserve your position or place in a company because you lack competence or talent. Instead, you might see your success as a fluke. This isn’t a modern psychological phenomenon, either. The term was first coined in 1978.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people who talk or write about impostor syndrome cover the impact it has on individuals. However, it can also wreak havoc on a collective level, so groups are just as susceptible to it. For leaders, then, helping teams beat impostor syndrome is part of becoming a great coach.
Recognizing Impostor Syndrome
The crux of the presentation involved linking high rates of impostor syndrome — which can affect up to 70% of people — with how often we see “perfection” online. After all, people don’t post mundane images or subpar first drafts; they showcase the very best of what they have. In turn, their followers might wonder why they can’t stack up to the unrealistic “ideal.”
Though I wasn’t familiar with impostor syndrome before the talk, I was no stranger to its far-reaching effects. I simply lacked a name for those feelings. The concept hit home and explained my discomfort in certain situations: Why did I shake during that speech? Why didn’t I make a decisive choice on a call? What was going on during that meeting that gave me a sense of unease? Sometimes, I could pinpoint impostor syndrome as a definite cause. And while I can usually talk myself into realizing that I do belong, not everyone can.
Dealing with impostor syndrome at work is no easy feat, and it makes a significant impact when team members assume they don’t measure up to company standards. They might have clear-cut roles — but when it comes to wholeheartedly believing that they deserve to be in those roles, they face trouble.
Women are especially susceptible, but men aren’t exempt from impostor syndrome. An employee might secretly struggle so much that he or she sabotages future successes by either being too passive or acting too forcefully. Either way, the individual ends up shifting his or her workplace’s culture, team dynamics, and productivity.
How Can We Combat Impostor Syndrome?
Knowing that your group is being held back by impostor syndrome can present an uncomfortable situation. Thankfully, you can take steps toward helping everyone contribute more effectively and responsibly.
At Pariveda, one way I’ve chipped away at impostor syndrome en masse is by rewarding people for sharing even the rawest of ideas. When team members know they have a psychologically safe space to contribute, they loosen up. It’s a cliché, sure, but there’s truly no bad idea. After all, inventions and innovations always grow from unadorned nuggets.
Another way to overcome impostor syndrome involves discouraging negative self-talk in ourselves. Humility is an impressive trait to have, but people should never feel undeserving. Someone saying: “I was so stupid and lost the account,” could become, “I didn’t gather the right information to keep the client around.” Sometimes, all it takes to quell this negative feeling is a bit of semantic tweaking.
Besides this, companies can combat impostor syndrome on a larger scale by adopting an organizational system that meets their needs. At Pariveda, we follow Holacracy, a working structure that allows people to own their voices. With Holacracy in place, Fins have the ability to speak their minds without fear — regardless of their position.
We’ve also found that Holacratic meeting processes are incredibly useful in combating impostor syndrome. Research shows that 71% of people believe meetings are wasteful, and 62% view them as not living up to their potential in bringing teams closer. In our world, we rarely feel that way. Our Pariveda Fins know they can safely share ideas and concerns without needing to prove themselves or assert dominance.
Holacracy’s constitution-based rules, firm meeting processes, and transparent governance work together to improve the clarity of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness (all elements of David Rock’s SCARF Model). This system helps us improve collaboration, but it’s certainly not the only meeting style that works. Beyond rewarding ideas, hampering negativity, and improving meetings, you can make a huge dent in impostor syndrome at your organization through these three strategies.
1. Celebrate vulnerability.
Imagine a leader walking into a room of co-workers and announcing: “I’m not the expert today, but I can be a facilitator. I’d love your input and thoughts regarding how to make a decision on this project.” The tenor of the meeting would shift entirely.
Employees with leaders who embrace their vulnerability (instead of pretending to be all-knowing) quickly learn that failure doesn’t have to sting and linger. The goal isn’t perfection — it’s to make the best choice for the here and now.
2. Address the elephant in the room.
Do you have an employee you suspect is holding back, possibly because of impostor syndrome? Consider having a private conversation to glean some insight. Explain that you want to hear that employee’s thoughts and that you sense her discomfort when it comes to presenting her ideas. The more you learn and empathize by using your emotional intelligence, the more rapidly you’ll help your employee quell impostor syndrome. With your genuine encouragement, she’ll comfortably add new ideas to the mix in no time.
3. Offer meaningful compliments daily.
Sincere flattery will get you really far, so point out the things your team members do that make your group environment so great.
For example, you might say: “Janice, you anticipated that client’s needs quickly and saved the day. That was awesome!” Another example: “Travis, I love the fact that you always bring a creative mindset to every meeting.” Over time, you’ll notice that employees become more open to sharing their perspectives and ideas. That’s because they’re not fretting over their perceived value.
Impostor syndrome might be an individual issue, but combating it effectively is a team effort. Even making small changes in how you approach day-to-day experiences can help give impostor syndrome the boot. The faster it’s out the door, the sooner you’ll help your people achieve more, feel less stressed, and make tremendous progress.