Episode 37

Impostor Syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments or talents and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Often our top performers, most worthy of praise, suffer from this condition. While impostor syndrome is an individual’s battle, in a modern workplace, its management and hopeful defeat can be done collectively. This blog will cover how corporate culture can help individuals who suffer from impostor syndrome.

Impostors syndrome can manifest in several ways: the need to be special or the best; to exemplify characteristics of a super person; a fear of failure; denial of their ability and discounting praise; or the feelings of fear and guilt about success. Modern work environments have features that make it easy for individuals that suffer from impostor syndrome to get stuck in feedback loops, making the condition worse if left unaddressed. In modern work environments we rely heavily on knowledge from experts and specialists working within teams that tackle complex problems often greater than any single individual. Compounding this the modern work environment is dynamic, with systems and processes changing more rapidly than they have in the past.

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The combination of individual specialization, multi-role teams, and a dynamic external environment places a lot of pressure on individuals to perform at high levels, as their contributions are critical to a high performing team. Therefore, individuals that suffer from impostor syndrome, who often doubt their own abilities, will either compensate by putting in extraordinary effort or fear contributing, amplifying their anxiety. We have all been in projects where an individual carried or saved the team or have someone in the office who is challenged when working on project teams.

What can you do to help individuals in your organization that suffer from imposter’s syndrome? An inclusive, supportive, and generative culture is critical here. Let’s translate those fancy buzzwords. To tackle impostor syndrome, the critical first step is to get those feelings out. If no one knows the internal challenges of the sufferer, it is impossible for others in the organization to adjust their behavior and provide support. People who feel like they are impostors often feel like they are outsiders, and therefore an inclusive culture is important. Make it normal for individuals to not be expected to know all the answers all the time. It is normal to ask for help and failure is ok. A supportive organization will see each unknown as a challenge to collectively solve (instead of sticking with what is known) and every setback as an opportunity to improve (instead of finding someone to blame). All of the above elements represent a generative culture where information and knowledge are free flowing between hierarchies and divisions, risks are shared, collaboration is encouraged, and novelty is supported.