Imposter Syndrome is a powerful beast that can negatively affect the output of individuals on your team and prevent them from reaching their full potential. It’s more widespread amongst high-level individuals and individuals working in fields where measuring success is complicated and up for interpretation. In short, engineers.

Up to 70% of people will experience it at least once in their lives, so there’s a high likelihood of you having to manage multiple Imposters throughout your career. I have helped not just myself but several of my reports to conquer Imposter Syndrome, and the difference it can make in people is truly incredible to experience. It requires both knowledge and patience, and if you don’t know where to get started, I’m here to help.

What is 'Imposter Syndrome'?

A simple way to describe Imposter Syndrome is when you have an otherwise competent person who deeply feels like they’re not capable at what they do and have just gotten lucky in not being found out. They’re waiting for the people around them to realise that they shouldn’t be there and the subsequent loss of status and security that undoubtedly comes when it happens.

Imposter Syndrome can showcase itself in a multitude of ways. Often it leads to the person working extra hard to make sure they will never get caught and overpreparing at the cost of their health and well-being. While the thorough preparation and extra productivity might seem beneficial at first glance, there are problems both short-term and long-term.

Short-term, they might refrain from asking the necessary questions to work efficiently due to a fear of being seen as not good enough. This unfortunate behaviour can lead to a slow-down in productivity and errors in decision-making due to a lack of information.

It can also manifest that an Imposter will often make themselves very small in an effort not to be in the spotlight. They’re afraid that the spotlight might lead to someone seeing them as the imposter they think they are. They will often not voice their new ideas, nor will they take up exciting opportunities that could further their career development and help boost your company and team success. Overall, this leads to less innovation and more mistakes since the Imposters might doubt themselves enough not to speak up even if they see something is wrong.

In some of the most extreme cases, you will end up with a report who burns out or quits her/his job due to their lack of confidence in their skills, and you will have lost a great employee.

Identifying Your Imposters

Imposter Syndrome is highly prevalent in Tech, and it gets worse the higher on the ladder you get. It occurs more frequently in workplace minorities, and in Tech, it disproportionately affects women and BIPOC, who will often go to great lengths to prove they fit into the culture.

It can be hard to tell whether a person is suffering from Imposter Syndrome as they do their best to hide it. Some of the signs of a possible Imposter can be:

  • They keep quiet during meetings, even if they have experience with a topic
  • They don’t appreciate praise, both in public and private
  • They work alone and don’t ask questions, especially when in a new setting
  • They over prepare for everything
  • They procrastinate until the very last moment

You might think that the best way to deal with an Imposter is to praise their accomplishments, but this can very often backfire. An Imposter will likely feel an initial sense of relief from your praise, thinking they have successfully managed to con their way through another interaction. However, unless tackled at its core, the Imposter will continue the cycle.

Luckily, there are many ways to help people at your workplace overcome imposter syndrome. The key to your success here is to enhance awareness, clarity and safety for the Imposter, which will also work wonders for the rest of your team. Depending on the Imposter, the team and the organisation you’re working with, there are a variety of things you can do to alleviate the problem.

We’ll cover some of the things you can do to help your Imposters thrive in a Part 2 of Managing People with Imposter Syndrome - Transforming Doubt into Success. Stay tuned!

About the Author

Sarah Vang Nøhr  is an Engineering Manager that has worked at Trustpilot, ShopGun and Akamai, to name just a few. One of the best descriptions of both Sarah's work style comes from a former head of department of hers; when she used the word "lawnmower" about Sarah - in a positive way.  When Sarah gets a task, she takes charge of it and completes it fast and efficiently, leaving a nice and clean result in the end.

We had an interesting conversation with Sarah a couple of month ago about 1:1s, effective delegation at work, career choices, and other relevant topics if you are yourself an Engineering Leader - enjoy!