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Here's How to Help Your Employees Deal with Imposter Syndrome

In recent years, imposter syndrome has become more and more visible—thanks in part to social media, which allows those who deal with imposter syndrome to more effectively share their experience.

What is imposter syndrome? It is a “psychological pattern in which people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” (That’s according to Wikipedia.) Often those have imposter syndrome dismiss their success as “luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”

Women typically are more likely to have imposter syndrome. A recent study found that 40% of millennial-age women feel intimidated in their workplace. Comparatively, only 22% of men in the same age group said the same. Imposter syndrome is especially common and pronounced in fields where women are underrepresented—such as the tech industry.

We’ve been talking about imposter syndrome a lot in the office lately. It got me thinking: how can workplaces in the tech and marketing community better help young professionals to be more confident? Imposter syndrome can be damaging for both those who suffer from it (who often end up keeping their heads down and avoiding promotions) and for businesses. So what can we do to help work environments become places where confidence is built?

The Damage of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is most likely to affect high-achieving women—and the bad news is that sometimes it gets worse as the sufferer gets better at their job. That is, the more they improve at a job or set of skills, the more likely they are to question their performance or chalk it up to pure luck. This can lead to depression and anxiety among employees, self-sabotage, and chronically “staying beneath the radar” (aka frequently switching jobs, avoiding promotions, and more).

Long-term, imposter syndrome is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety—two things that can vastly impact work performance, as well as health. As well, those who suffer from imposter syndrome can often end up in managerial and leadership roles—but often actively avoid promotions. They are more likely to work overtime and have an unhealthy work-life balance as they become fearful of appearing lazy.

All of these things can make work environments feel extremely stressful for those who experience imposter syndrome. So what can workplaces do to stop the cycle?

What Can Workplaces Do?

Unfortunately, imposter syndrome doesn’t come in a one-size-fits-all package. Everyone who experiences imposter syndrome experiences it differently. This is a good rundown of the types of imposter syndrome and how they can affect both individuals and businesses. Basically, it can be broken down like this:

  • Those who are sure they are going to fail every task they perform

  • Those who feel like frauds or liars that will be exposed at any moment

  • Those who devalue their worth and contributions to team projects

  • Those who underestimate their experience or expertise.

As mentioned, imposter syndrome is most likely to affect women (although that doesn’t mean that men don’t also experience it). As we know from multiple studies, men are more likely to apply for any job, even if they don’t meet even the bare minimum of job requirements; women, conversely, are more likely to not apply for a job even they don’t meet every single requirement. There is a definite gap in confidence levels when it comes to job applications, workplaces, and gender—but what can be done to fix it?

1. Mentorship

There are many opportunities for workplaces to pair up young professionals with older employees who can help guide them through starting their career. Our own Celeste Edman participates in mentor opportunities at the University of Oregon. Having a role model to give them confidence, and talk them up when they start feeling doubtful of their abilities, can make a huge difference for young professionals, especially young women.

The challenge here is to have a company culture that supports honesty regarding personal difficulties, a culture that is open to addressing the major differences between how men and women are treated when starting their careers.

2. Publicly Acknowledge Accomplishments

Right after I graduated college, I worked a job where I was doing receptionist work, while also starting basic marketing tasks for this business that had barely done any digital marketing before. However, every suggestion I would make for improving the website or advertising would be shot down immediately by one of my supervisors—only for him to turn around and present the idea as his own, or the suggestion of another employee, a week later. It made me start to second guess any suggestions I made and if I even understood marketing enough to work in the business. That isn’t how business works, or should work, at least.

One thing I’ve learned since then is this: when a company takes a suggestion from an employee seriously, it gives that employee confidence in their abilities and their job. And if they implement that suggestion, it needs to be acknowledged to have come from the correct employee (not their supervisor, not someone who said it differently later). When it comes to young professionals just starting their careers, being listened to is one of the most challenging parts of their jobs; a workplace that shows confidence in them and their abilities will only benefit.

3. Create a Culture Where Mistakes Aren’t Seen as Failures

We’re all very used to seeing the same scene in a movie or TV show: the executive goes into a boardroom and is thoroughly dressed down by the person above him for some small (or large) mistake. It doesn’t even have to be that serious either: we see scenes where entry-level employees are fired for a small mistake. What’s the common phrase when a company goofs on social media? “And intern is gonna get fired.”

People make mistakes. Or sometimes, they do a bad job. Work culture, especially in the United States, tends to be highly focused on perfectionism: doing everything absolutely perfect the first time. But realistically, that’s not how it works. As Celeste discussed in a recent vlog, rejection, and making changes, is just part of a business—and that means making mistakes too. But a single mistake isn’t a failure and it doesn’t have to be treated like one.

When companies create a culture that supports employees regardless of their successes and failures and finds ways to move forward past mistakes with better measures in place to prevent mistakes from happening, employees can feel more confident that a simple mistake won’t mean the loss of their job.

4. Support Work-Life Balance

Speaking from personal experience again, I often spend hours after work thinking about, you guessed it, work. I know many people are like this, even my own coworkers. A few months ago, however, I drew a hard line in the sand: when I go home, I’m at home. I can work on a single task if it is important or urgent, but I can’t dedicate my evenings reading articles on the couch about the newest social trends, or the time I spend at the gym answering emails or Slack messages. And thankfully, Lunar Logic is the kind of workplace where this isn’t just accepted, it’s actively encouraged.

It’s great to have employees who are borderline obsessed with their jobs and doing a good job—but it can also be evidence of issues with imposter syndrome. Encouraging work-life balance (and real balance, not just saying it and then still expecting employees to work late into the evenings when they should be at home relaxing) is one way to ensure that employees know their job isn’t more important than them. Not only will this help those with imposter syndrome relax, it will help all employees draw better lines between their work and their life so they can relax and be better employees.

What’s Next?

I’ve walked you through what imposter syndrome is, how it affects employees (and particularly how it affects young women starting their careers), and what you can do to help your employees avoid imposter syndrome.

You might be considering implementing changes to your company culture to better support young professionals and close the “confidence gap.” But here are a few more tips you can give your employees to help them combat imposter syndrome and build confidence:

  • Encourage employees to speak to you (or their supervisor) if they feel they are struggling with tasks that should be easy for them.

  • Remind that employees there is a difference between feelings and facts. They might feel like they’ve done a bad job on a task—but if you tell them it is great, that’s a fact.

  • Self-doubt isn’t a sign of being inept, especially in fields where they are few young employees or women. It is a sign of feeling like an outsider—and it’s totally normal.

  • Responding to criticism is a skill that takes practice; they won’t always be good at it, but being open to growth and change is important.

  • Encourage employees to develop a new internal script to cover up negative self-talk.

  • Encourage employees to pat themselves on the back. Many young professionals were raised to avoid bragging, especially young women; encourage them to take credit for doing a good job.
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