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Shifting the imposter syndrome stigma

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At least for the majority of us, it’s fair to say you wouldn’t have got the job (and still be doing it) if you weren’t capable or good enough. So why are you letting those pesky voices in your head get in your own way? It’s time to address imposter syndrome in the workplace, stop thinking of it as a taboo topic and realise a problem shared is actually a problem not halved, but eliminated.

Let’s face it, if you were genuinely doing a terrible job, you’d have been called in for a chat with your line manager, received some form of written or verbal warning, given multiple opportunities to overcome any barriers, and worst-case scenario waved goodbye to your role within the organisation.

The problem is that imposter syndrome can strike anyone, at any level, at any time in their career — whether they’re starting out or at the top of their game. We live in a competitive world where there’s always new ideas, new ways of working, new tech, and new starters who come packed with fresh enthusiasm and maybe additional skills that you’re yet to master. Couple all that with the pandemic putting pressure on many companies to make cuts and assess who is ‘worth keeping’, it’s a breeding ground for anxieties, insecurities and doubt to imbed within your workforce.

So, what exactly is it?

A quick Google search will tell you that imposter syndrome is “​​the persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills” and "people suffering from impostor syndrome may be at increased risk of anxiety".

Identifying the early signs

Imposter syndrome can strike at any time, however studies have shown that those with perfectionistic tendencies as well as those who suffer from anxiety are more likely to develop imposter syndrome. Look at your high achievers, the ambitious folk who are trying to fast-track up the ranks — these are the people who may have been pressured to do well when they were younger and it’s been programmed into their subconscious that it’s imperative to overachieve, regardless of any impending burnout. There’s also the people who may have just taken on new responsibilities and, while deserved, they may be feeling unworthy of the opportunity and overwhelmed with any additional pressures.

What are the first steps you can take as an employer?

  • Listen out for it: what language are your people using to describe themselves and their work? Become more aware of negative language
  • Promote self-assessments: encouraging team members to fill out simple self-assessment forms will give you an insight into their mindset and help identify who could benefit from any additional support
  • Recognise achievements: no matter how big or small. A job well done, a great idea in a meeting, a supportive thumbs up; show your team you’re encouraging professional growth
  • Encourage inclusivity: those from underprivileged or underrepresented backgrounds may not feel as deserving of success as someone from a wealthy or educated background, and the role your leadership team plays in encouraging an inclusive environment is crucial — don’t let yourselves fall short
  • Promote within: if possible, that is. Show your team that you care about growing and retaining existing talent, so that those who are rewarded know they truly deserve it
  • Create an occupational health programme: do you have a system in place where employees can engage in a confidential open discussion about their troubles? There are plenty of services you can enlist to support the mental wellbeing of your team.

The bottom line

It’s important to reinforce that success doesn’t require perfection, and the quicker you can communicate this to your people the better. Every job in every sector will know what is business critical and of high importance, but if we can all set realistic expectations for team members without frightening them into fear of failure, that is surely a more proactive approach?

The biggest takeaway though is communication. Imposter syndrome is a very real threat to team cohesion and damaging to an individual’s own career path. It shouldn’t be a taboo subject, so we all need to collectively encourage people to feel comfortable talking about it.

You’ll often hear people around the office say they’re having a ‘deja vu’ moment — this should be no different. If Person A comes out of a meeting where they’re left feeling overwhelmed or doubting themselves, instead of letting this fester, by openly acknowledging those feelings they’re actually inviting reassurance from their peers and immediately squashing those creeping doubts.

Yes, this will require building a level of vulnerability-based trust in order to feel comfortable sharing these limiting beliefs, but by making it an open topic for discussion and that any admission will be met with understanding, you’re already solving the problem. Do you agree? Let me know by finding me on LinkedIn or Twitter .

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