Imposter syndrome can be a huge obstacle for employees. Here's how managers can save the day—and the business.
Imposter syndrome—feelings of inadequacy or unqualification—negatively affect the majority of individuals, especially in the workplace. This phenomenon makes you believe that despite your skills and qualifications, you are not good enough or worthy of succeeding, said Sam Parr, founder and CEO of The Hustle, and can hinder productivity and performance.
While this mindset is easy to fall into, especially in the tech world, employees have to fight these feelings consistently. The first step to alleviating feelings of being an imposter is to openly talk about them, said Lauren Romansky, vice president of HR at Gartner. "The biggest mistake is just not addressing it and not really talking about it," she added.
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"Sometimes people can perceive talking about their emotions as being fluff talk, but it's actually incredibly important," Parr said. While discussing emotions can be a challenge for most people to begin with, discussing them in the workplace can easily feel more uncomfortable, even taboo.
People feel innately uncomfortable talking about their feelings because of the long-standing societal stigma associated with expressing emotions. But bottling up emotions only hurts the individual—personally and professionally. People often end up letting feelings of imposter syndrome manifest in a way that negatively affects their work, allowing the pressure of perceived expectations cloud their vision, Romansky said.
Despite this, imposter syndrome doesn't always have to be a bad thing. "It is a negative for employees who are experiencing it, but it may also just be indicative of some growth opportunities," Romansky said.
The responsibility to turn it into a positive learning experience, however, falls on both the employee and the supervisor. "Focusing exclusively on performance and results is important," Romansky said. "Some managers rely on that because it's fair, and it's certainly cut and dry. But going a little bit further with employees to understand their personal motivation and feelings, and how that relates to their engagement and aspirations, is going to be really important."
Affirmation, recognition, and connection
Supervisors and managers are responsible for the progress, motivation, and achievement of their staff. A part of that responsibility is to help alleviate imposter syndrome from an employee's mindset, instead making the individual feel affirmed and valued, Parr said.
"Any time you have an employee who's feeling like they don't belong, the first thing is to just focus on frequent feedback, and certainly affirmative and positive feedback to let them know where they are doing a great job and that their contribution is valued," Romansky said.
Once you've provided that affirmation, then help the employee look forward, Parr recommended. Some employees are confident in their current abilities, but may not be as confident in accomplishing future goals or challenges. Ask the employee where they want their career to go and what they want to accomplish, and then help them formulate a direct, specific, and logical approach to achieve those goals, Parr said.
"There is then no impostor syndrome to deal with because you've already explained what the exact actions are that you're going to take," Parr added. "So stop thinking that you are not good enough when you now have a clear roadmap to get there."
Managers can also help reduce imposter syndrome through recognition. After giving the employee that positive feedback, Romansky suggested you "take that feedback and then scale it up. Share it with the rest of the team or other leaders. That just underscores to the employee that you mean it, you understand, you appreciate their contribution."
A big part of the manager's responsibility falls on the role they directly play, which means managers need to be vulnerable to receive vulnerability back, Parr said. "Being vulnerable first and then asking someone else to be vulnerable usually works quite well to get people to reciprocate. It's way easier to start off from a vulnerable place and get the other person to reciprocate."
This idea of transparency and reciprocity goes hand in hand with Romansky's last tip: Mentorship. A strong connection between an employee and experienced coworker can go far in calming and affirming the employee. "If that individual is wondering where they belong in the organization, any time a supervisor can provide them with a role model or a mentor across the organization, that is incredibly helpful," Romansky said.
Whether it's from the same team or different part of the organization, connecting with someone who has been in your similar position before can be extremely helpful. Listening to another's experience helps someone with imposter syndrome realize that someone was able to do their position before them, so there is no reason they can't, Parr added.
"Imposter syndrome is fear, and fear should motivate you to improve," said Parr. "You shouldn't try to get rid of that fear, you should try to embrace that fear. You shouldn't let that nervousness inspired you to work harder or to work smarter or to get better at your prep."
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