How the Impostor Syndrome Affects Employers
Do you wonder if you’re attracting the right people to your company?
I mean, of course you do. You’re growing, agile, and want to develop a successful team. You want — hell, you need capable people interested in growing their careers that can deliver results. It’s hard enough to attract the cream of the crop. Don’t make it harder on yourself by passing on a diamond in the rough who might be suffering from impostor syndrome.
What Exactly Is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome was first coined in the late 1970s by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes to describe a sort of self-perceived intellectual phoniness — once found particularly among high-achieving women. But now it’s increasingly found in anyone who is high achieving, is highly successful, or works in a rapidly changing, impossible-to-master field like tech.
How Do You Identify These Behaviors?
The CalTech Counseling Center put it best: it’s not an all-or-nothing syndrome. But see if you notice any of the following behaviors that Drs. Clance and Imes identified in their increasingly seminal article (along with a few more relevant ones merged in). If you do, take note!
1. Feeling like they have to work harder than others
These people think they are frauds and they work doubly hard to ensure people don’t think they’re frauds too. In other words: smart people trying to avoid being “found out.”
- Impressive resume
- Underwhelming interview
- Verbal mention that they’re not ready for the position, but clearly qualified
- Below-average salary pitch
- When hired, they wonder why they’re still on Slack at this hour
- Sleep deprivation
- Burnout (which skyrockets your company’s turnover rate)
2. Feeling like a phony
These people have the answers, but they’re smart enough to know the answer you want. Safe answers that alleviate doubts and take the spotlight off them. They feel they get to live another day, but deep down, they’ll continue to feel like a phony.
- Never says a critical thing
- Instant perception as a yes-man/-woman
- You, as management, wondering why your ideas as of late haven’t been working
- Not getting the best ideas from your team
- Remember, someone out there didn’t tell Howard Schultz that putting “Race Matters” on Starbucks cups would have been a controversial idea
3. Reliance on charm
As smart, high-achieving people, they will use perceptiveness to get what they need. When they get what they need, inevitably succeed, and are given praise/approval for it, they will attribute that positive response to the charm used, not their innate ability or ingenuity.
- Extremely likeable and/or well liked
- Always ask how your weekend was
- Always bringing in treats
- Knows all your pets by name
- Lack of confidence in success
- Inability to duplicate success — after all, it’s because they were nice to everyone!
- Employees could feel praise is towards them as a person, instead of as a professional
4. Feeling lucky
These people attribute their successes to anything but their own work. They have legitimate accomplishments, projects they’re proud of, but to them they feel and often express that it was just a happy accident, secretly feeling it will catch up to them.
- Dismissive of praise
- Hearing “It wasn’t a big deal”
- Giving too much credit to teammates
- Strong employees only taking ownership of their failures, not their triumphs
- Reluctance to take on new tasks and responsibilities
5. Aversion to displays of confidence
Which is self-explanatory. After all, highlighting their abilities would shine a light on their imagined shortcomings and gaps of knowledge, exposing them for the fraud they are.
- Doesn’t own successes
- Avoids the spotlight
- Hides academic background, pedigree, accomplishments, or degrees to blend in
- Doesn’t talk in meetings
- Much of the above
- Fear of success
- Career sabotage
As you may have noticed from the above, these are self-perpetuating cycles where people don’t feel entitled to enjoy their professional successes. Not a great way to through one’s working life!
What Can You Do As an Employer?
There’s actually a lot you can do! Now that you know some of the traits of impostor syndrome and the consequences of letting it go ignored and unnoticed, you can develop strategies to attack it head on. Here are just a few:
1. Get “Expert,” “Ninja,” “Guru” out of your job ads
Don’t let potential candidates eliminate themselves from the running before they’ve even applied. Make room for a range of experiences. There’s quite a few potential superheroes for your company between Entry-Level and Captain ****in’ America.
2. Present cooperative scenarios, not competitive ones
A concept from taken from GeekFeminism.org: don’t directly ask about successes or set them up to answer why they’re the single right person for the job. It’s time to nix that outdated method from your recruitment strategies. Instead, ask what they did that benefited someone else. While there’s a risk that they pass off credit, from the scenario, you are likely to see their true role and how they best function in a team.
3. Be a good mentor, then empower them to succeed
With the right support and encouragement from a mentor that values their skill set (and makes it apparently known that they value their skill set), it could be just the opportunity they need to shine and be confident in their own success. Ensure your employees are onboarded properly; setting up a challenging plan or timeline will hold them accountable for their own work.
4. Validate your employees
This sounds simple enough, but let them know they’re doing a good job. (Remember, we discovered from our Employee Retention Report that 79% of employees don’t feel valued for the work they put in.) If you have developed a data-driven culture, it’s easy to harp on the things that went wrong. Make sure they know you appreciate their contributions and what they do right.
5. Establish a supportive network
Do your employees have a supportive in-house network? It’s not always true that access to other big brains will lead to more confident performers — in fact, it can exacerbate those feelings of professional inadequacy. Make sure there are not only big brains but patient teachers willing to help those who want to learn.