Imposter syndrome is bad for employees and for business. Here are 3 ways leaders can stop it in its tracks.

Courtesy of Julia WuenchJulia Wuench.
  • Julia Wuench is the founder of The Authenticity Guide, a positive-psychology-based career and executive coaching firm that empowers individuals to harness their authenticity to improve life and work.
  • She says that when companies hire high achievers, imposter syndrome can run rampant – people constantly feel like frauds.
  • Imposter syndrome can have a real impact on business, and leaders need to proactively try and fend it off.
  • Leaders should be vulnerable, but with a moral takeaway. They should also let employees realise they often know the solutions to their problems, and create a culture where questions are encouraged and valued.
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In my first job out of college, I was hired as a financial analyst for a large healthcare system. The job was very accounting heavy, but the hiring managers didn’t seem to care that I had absolutely no accounting experience. (I studied economics, and I had dropped out of accounting on the first day of class.) My inexperience quickly showed. During one of my first days on the job, a senior analyst asked me to “look into the journal entries,” to which my response was actual laughter: “Like a ‘Dear Diary’ about a medical supply purchase?!” I joked out loud. To my horror, nobody else laughed. I had succeeded in outing myself as completely clueless. Needless to say, it was a steep learning curve.

But even when I caught up, I constantly felt like a fraud. High achievers know this phenomenon all too well: imposter syndrome. And now that I’m a career and executive coach, it’s something I encounter in my clients constantly – no matter who they are.

When companies hire mostly high-achieving people, imposter syndrome can run rampant on corporate teams – and even throughout whole companies. And, it’s expensive for organisations when these issues go unaddressed: Many of the symptoms of imposter syndrome result in an inefficient use of the company’s time and resources, which lead to real costs to organisations.

People with imposter syndrome can suffer from procrastination (“I’m going to put this task off because I’m so overwhelmed by it”); over-preparation (“I’m going to prepare for this presentation every waking minute because I’m so anxious about it going poorly”); fear of asking questions when an answer is unclear (“I’m terrified I’m the only one who doesn’t know the answer, so I’m not going to ask to avoid looking like a fool”); and self-sabotage (“I’m going to mess this up anyway so I might as well just give the task to Henry”).

Because of the serious business implications of allowing this attitude to flourish, the onus is on leaders of high-performing teams to turn around cultures that normalize these fear-based symptoms. In order for employees to learn, grow, and progress, they must not feel shame around expressing uncertainty and seeking help. As a leader, here are three main ways to fix the problem:


1. Use “directed vulnerability”

TEDBrene Brown.

The word “vulnerability” has received a lot of recognition since Brene Brown’s 2010 TEDxHouston talk, in which she discusses how people who have the greatest capacity for connection embrace and practice vulnerability.

From Brown’s work, we can extrapolate that when leaders are vulnerable with their employees, that vulnerability is mirrored, resulting in more authenticity, honesty, and connection. I want to take this concept one step further and assert that leaders should use “directed vulnerability.”

What this means is that your vulnerability should have a moral, or a takeaway. I encourage leaders to express what’s hard. And, here’s the “directed” part: They should also express what they’re going to do about it. Vulnerability on its own may set an inadvertent example that employees should sit with problems instead of solve them.

For example, I once witnessed a CEO of an organisation cry at a team meeting and express that she did not know where the next round of funding was going to come from. While she was expressing authentic vulnerability, it threw the rest of the team into an existential panic about the future of their jobs. In fact, it would have been more helpful if the leader could have expressed concern and ideas for tangible paths forward. This illustrates to employees that some amount of uncertainty is expected, but we also can’t let it paralyse us.


2. Empower your employees to solve their own problems

Steve Debenport/Getty ImagesOften, when an employee comes to a manager with a question, they already know the solution.

Think of a child struggling with a puzzle that’s tricky but very much within her ability to solve, with time. When we let the child struggle and ultimately solve the puzzle, she proves to herself that she can tackle a difficult task. Her self esteem and sense of mastery grow.She doesn’t need someone to solve the problem for her; she can do it herself.

Empowering your employees to solve their own problems is not unlike this. Many times when an employee comes to a manager with a problem, the solution is already known. Instead of offering up a solution, ask your employee what she thinks she should do, and try not to intervene as she brainstorms. In most instances, when the employee talks herself through the problem without your input, she’ll come to a solution. Even if it’s not necessarily the solution you might have suggested, you might consider letting her run with it and experience the aftermath for herself. Regardless of the outcome, you’ve proved to your employee that she knows more than she initially gave herself credit for.


3. Reward a culture of questions

FS Stock/ShutterstockNormalize a culture where people seek answers without shame.

To combat imposter syndrome, it’s critical for leaders to reward teaching, mentoring, and question asking among teammates. Leaders must establish and normalize a culture wherein there are inevitable gaps in people’s knowledge and they seek answers rather than feel shame. Here are some ways to do this:

  1. Publicly own the gaps in your own knowledge without shame and communicate how you plan to seek answers.
  2. In team meetings you can mandate that each person ask a question at the beginning or end of the meeting.
  3. Publicly thank people for their questions: “It was courageous of you to be the first person to ask a question. Thank you.”
  4. Pair employees with complementary skill sets together to learn a new task.

When we normalize question asking, we are telling employees that it’s ok to not know the answer. When people feel comfortable seeking answers, they fill gaps in their understanding and are therefore more knowledgeable.

In order to prevent the byproducts of imposter syndrome from adversely affecting the company’s bottom line, leaders have a responsibility to address it and support employees who suffer from it. By using these three strategies, leaders can get a handle on imposter syndrome and prevent it from becoming a cultural norm.

Julia Wuench is the founder of The Authenticity Guide. In addition to coaching, she teaches workshops on topics like “The Positive Power of Failure,” “Imposter Syndrome,” “Using StrengthsFinder on Teams,” “The Elusive Work/Life Balance,” and more. She holds an MBA from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more and sign up for her newsletter on her website at www.theauthenticityguide.com.

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