You got this — what you can do to support starters with imposter syndrome
“You’re not enough.”
Ah, the inner saboteur strikes again.
Unfortunately, most of us suffer from imposter syndrome from time to time. And that’s no exaggeration. In fact, research suggests 9% to 82% of people will experience this negative sensation at some point; with communities of colour coming in higher on the scale.
Yeah, there’s just no getting away from it: when it comes to modern working — especially from afar — imposter syndrome’s an all-too-familiar feeling.
What is imposter syndrome?
It’s natural to feel a bit insecure in a new situation, isn’t it? And a few first-day jitters aren’t anything out of the ordinary.
Imposter syndrome is different, though.
This psychological phenomenon forces individuals to unnecessarily doubt their abilities and accomplishments; that’s despite plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. Left unchecked and it can lead to the person feeling as if they’re a fraud — or “faking it til they make it”.
But how prevalent is it in day-to-day life, really?
According to Indeed’s Working on Wellbeing report, imposter syndrome is now one of the most common mental health issues in today’s workplace; as of last year, nearly 3 in 5 (58%) employees have experienced it.
The problem is: despite the sheer volume of those affected, imposter syndrome is very good at creeping in quietly.
And once it’s found a way to bury itself in?
Well, it can quickly lead individuals to feel as if they’re going to be “found out” sooner or later. The irony is that despite being more than capable of carrying out their roles, imposter syndrome can eventually impact performance if left unchecked.
Damn, self-sabotaging brain.
So what are the signs of imposter syndrome?
A little self-doubt is normal, isn’t it?
Totally. But imposter syndrome can push these ordinary feelings into unhelpful directions.
“Chances are your employees aren’t sharing their imposter feelings with you, so you need to know what behaviors to look out for. Unsustainable work habits, such as constantly working long hours, can be a telltale sign. Inviting a conversation about whether the employee is being ambitious or compensating for imposter feelings can be transformative,” said Richard Gardner and Jeff Bednar in ‘ 4 Ways to Combat Imposter Syndrome on Your Team ‘ for Harvard Business Review.
Here are some other common signs that something could be wrong:
- Fear, anxiety and depression
- Self-doubt, insecurity and low self-esteem
- Depression and sadness
- Frustration and resentment
- Fatigue or lethargic feelings
- Hypervigilance and a fear of being “found out”
- Feeling like a fraud despite evidence of competence
- Discounting their achievements or attributing them to luck
- Fear of receiving negative feedback or criticism
- Over-preparing or overworking to compensate for perceived inadequacy
- Difficulty accepting praise or positive feedback
- Perfectionism and setting excessively high standards
- Comparing themself to others, whilst feeling inferior or inadequate
- Avoiding new challenges or opportunities for fear of failure
- Feeling like an outsider or impostor in social or professional settings
- Disengaging work habits, e.g. withdrawal from social groups
- Hesitancy to ask questions or speak up
- Persistent excuses for falling behind on deadlines
It’s a list as lofty as the standards an imposter syndrome sufferer would set themselves.
The problem is: imposter syndrome can manifest itself differently in everyone. Worse still, this sneaky syndrome isn’t always easy to spot.
When we’re struggling with our mental health, we can become very good at covering it up. Not to mention the fact that 58% of employees still don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work (The Harris Poll).
Indeed’s research found that our inability to open up about mental health was even worse when it came to imposter syndrome:
- 94% of those who have suffered from imposter syndrome haven’t discussed their feelings at work
- 61% fear that sharing their feelings of “frequent” self-doubt could make them look like a less capable employee
- 52% said they would be embarrassed to open up about imposter syndrome
But if staff are unwilling to open up, what can you actually do as an employer?
Well, you don’t have to wait for imposter syndrome to show up. Instead, you can help support staff on day one before it even becomes a thing.
Supporting staff with imposter syndrome from the start
We’ve talked about the importance of getting remote onboarding right before. But when it comes to stopping new starters from feeling like imposters, it couldn’t be more vital.
“…impostor syndrome can be even more intense in a remote environment. Reduced personal contact drives us to retreat into our own heads. And without the benefit of body language and other nuanced communication from others that provides immediate feedback, our self-limiting thoughts tend to take over,” says Lisa Ames over at Fast Company.
The problem is, thoughts don’t stay thoughts for long; if left to spiral, we can end up acting upon them. “That can lead to confirmation bias, a slippery slope in which we seek evidence to prove our negative beliefs,” suggests Ames.
Don’t worry. Here’s how to send imposter syndrome packing from the start:
- Share your story — imposter syndrome affects everyone — no, seriously. Just mention any of these twelve prominent figures in your onboarding meeting to prove your point. Better still, share your own story. Comfort, reassure and be a manager your staff can truly relate to.
- Set clear expectations — most of the trouble with imposter syndrome comes from the “not knowing”. You can nip this in the bud early by being super clear in the onboarding meeting about exactly what you expect. Just be sure to do this verbally if you can, though.
- Communicate regular feedback — it goes without saying how important this is. But it’s even more crucial when working remotely. Along with written comms, book regular 1:1 meetings (physical or via video). We know it’s tough when you’re spinning plates but it’s just far too easy to misconstrue written comms over email and Slack. Just one rushed message can lead to employees catastrophising or fearing the worst. In fact, as much as 91% of office workers have said their colleagues have misinterpreted their digital messages.
- Encourage their mistakes — it’s unlikely that work will ever be perfect from the start — and that’s OK. We learn from our mistakes and that’s what makes us better. So establish a culture without blame; one that frames “blips” as learning opportunities. Giving staff the confidence to get things wrong also opens them up to powerful new ideas in future.
- Make work safe — OK, so you can’t force staff to open up. But you can make sure that they know your workplace is one that takes mental health seriously. Whether that’s mental health holidays, confidential counselling or another forum for them to express their concerns, let staff know work is a safe place from the start.
At the end of the day, this inner imposter is a character born from fiction. So the best way to combat this is to only work with facts.
But how can you help reframe the story in someone else’s head?
It’s simple: if your employee is getting hung up on future mistakes, point them towards their immediate victories. Quickly turning any negative narrative into a success story is the best way to empower new starters. Importantly, it will give them the confidence to ideate and innovate for their success — and yours too.
Do build them up and banish the imposter. Your bottom line is thanking you already.