Overcoming Your Imposter Syndrome as a Manager

🙋‍♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post below, consider subscribing! I post one issue per month.

Imposter syndrome (or rather Imposter Phenomenon) was first coined as a term in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Their now classic research explored the general feeling of malaise present in graduate students, especially prevalent between highly accomplished women.

At its core, imposter syndrome is about the sense of being “just lucky to get here”. Sufferers believe that they tricked people into thinking they deserve their accomplishments and that they’re going to be exposed soon as frauds. According to research, it plagues workers regardless of their aptitude or expertise. Almost 70% of workers will experience it at some point in their careers, and it’s the #1 fear of executives. It thrives in a fast-paced industry like technology, and along with everything else, it worsened with COVID19 and the abrupt switch of numerous teams to remote work.

As imposter syndrome is much more likely to manifest in people who start a new endeavour, you must prepare to face it as a new manager. It’s not a matter of “if” but of “when”; if you’re a highly driven person hiring highly driven people, chances are that you’ll face the following challenges sooner than later.

🌱 Helping yourself

Most management advice assumes that new managers are well-rounded, balanced people who can easily show vulnerability, ask for critical feedback without batting an eyelid, and never take credit for their teams’ work. The reality is quite different.

As your team looks up to you for guidance, expressing your doubts about your manager abilities to your direct reports might not always be the best course of action. If you want to vent about your challenges, it’s best to find a coach or even create your own manager Voltron, as per Lara Hogan’s advice.

During my most intense imposter syndrome episodes, a small thing that helped me was to create a virtual log of all the times someone complimented my work. There’s no reason to get fancy about it; I keep this list of screenshots in a Notion table. To get started, ask your peers and team for positive feedback specifically. Urge them to focus on how they benefit from your work, thinking about what you bring to the team that no one else does.

A typical manager behaviour that feeds into imposter syndrome is refusing to take any credit for your team’s work. I don’t suggest appropriating their accomplishments, but try to internalize that their good outcomes are due to the efficient process you created for them, as well as the hurdles you removed from their way. Reflect on what went well for your team during the last quarter and recognise your role in it.

Overcoming your imposter syndrome, especially as a manager, is not going to be a quick win. You have to understand that this process will require lots of introspection and willingness to look for your imperfections. But you owe it to yourself to find the confidence to learn and grow.

🌿 Helping your team

Even if you don’t suffer from imposter syndrome yourself (lucky you!), you can easily detect such behaviour in your team. It manifests as fatigue, dissatisfaction with the work at hand, anxiety, or even depression in some cases.

Employees that suffer from syndrome will find it difficult to accept compliments and internalise their accomplishments. You’ll often hear them using self-deprecating language or avoiding speaking up and confronting others for fear that they’re going to be “exposed” as a fraud. They avoid asking for feedback, as it might leave them vulnerable to critique, and they prefer to spend a lot of time and effort before asking for help.

Even if they seem perfectly capable of taking up stretch goals and larger assignments, they tend to stay in their comfort zone and second-guess their decisions constantly. Often, imposter syndrome sufferers will overwork themselves to burnout because they feel the need to prove their value and “earn their keep”.

Be open about discussing imposter syndrome with your team. Find ways to reassure them that not having all the answers at hand doesn’t mean they’re a fraud. If someone openly shares their struggles with you, demonstrate empathy and acknowledge that it takes courage from them to share it with their manager. Assure them that it’s normal to feel this way and look out for resources to help you mentor them (or even hire business coaches for them).

Recognise your team’s achievements publicly and often, emphasising their effort, not its outcome. Don’t forget that in some cultures, people will often assume you exaggerate your good feedback to make them feel better, so try to provide hard evidence and facts.

😅 After all, is everyone a fraud?

David Perell, a writer, podcaster and teacher, has a select few words to people that let imposter syndrome to hold them back:

“When you realise that everyone is an imposter, you realize that no one’s an imposter.”
David Perell

His message comes from a writer’s standpoint, but the idea is universal. No one is born knowing everything there is to know.

You have to acknowledge the time and effort it will take to become better at what you’re bad at right now. You have to trust your capacity for learning and improving.

Subscribe to my management & leadership newsletter
How To Be Managed
Hiring 101: How to Prepare Before Your First Hiring Round