In Part 1 of Managing People with Imposter Syndrome, we talked about how to identify people with Imposter Syndrome and why it’s important to take an active role in alleviating the stress it puts on your reports.

🙋‍♀️ Here follows some concrete steps you can take to create a work environment for them to thrive in!

Acknowledge that it exists - and it’s not just a personal problem

Someone suffering from Imposter Syndrome will often not ask for help, as this is considered a weakness and a way to admit you’re not supposed to be there. That’s part of the reason why this is such a hidden problem. The initial step should always be to raise awareness, start the conversation and help people step forward in a trusted environment.

It’s easy to think that you’re alone in your struggles, that everyone else is capable and successful and never struggles with feelings of self-doubt, and compare yourself to them, thinking you should be more like them. However, taking a problem away from the individual and acknowledging it as a general problem that’s not a personal shortcoming can work wonders. Once you’ve taken a deep dive into understanding how Imposter Syndrome works, you can have an initial conversation with your team and individual reports about the topic.

During this conversation, you can highlight how:

  • It’s common in highly specialised fields
  • There’s no relation between actual skills and perceived skills
  • One way to treat it is by internalising success and understanding and accepting praise
  • You will be there to help if needed - and coming to you will not reflect poorly on anyone

This conversation is just the starting point, and you should follow it up with regular support and feedback for any person dealing with Imposter Syndrome. While this point can already help immensely, there’s more you can do that will both help Imposters and bring the whole team to a new level.

Create a culture that’s accepting of mistakes

A great way to take pressure off of an Imposter is to create a culture that embraces mistakes. While the Imposter might still fuss over mistakes, with time, it can help break down the barriers that keep the imposter so wary of admitting their weak points.

A culture like this also fosters continuous growth by allowing people to reflect and learn from their mistakes rather than hide them. If you commit fully to this, you can create an environment where problems are quickly brought to life and quickly solved.

While many companies want such a culture, it’s not always successfully implemented. It requires a great deal of trust and vulnerability to admit your mistakes, and it’s easy to break that trust the moment someone reacts negatively to it - especially if it comes from leadership. That’s why, if you want to be truly successful in this regard, you have to start with yourself first.

Start by reflecting on specific triggers that cause you to react negatively to mistakes. If something is a priority for your boss, do you focus excessively on deadlines and get irritated when a delivery gets delayed? Do bugs that reach production make you reprimand the team? Do you let it out on your team when you have a bad day?

If yes, you have an excellent starting point to start a conversation about the things you do and how you’re trying to grow past that to create a different culture. If not, you can share your own mistakes and how you’ve learnt and grown from them. Sharing your own experiences helps build trust and show that you’re not just talking the talk - you’re right there walking with them.

Follow this up by creating a solid retrospective culture where you focus on growing as a team. Instilling a growth mindset in your reports is a great way to bring their best work out and make them relax more - especially if they suffer from Imposter Syndrome. In effect, the goal here should be to cultivate a growth mindset in your entire organisation.

Clarify what success means

A lot of the insecurity an Imposter feels stems from the uncertainty of how they’re doing and how others see them. If you give them a clear framework to work within, they can focus and create great results. Of course, this requires you to have a clear idea of your own, the team’s, and the organisation’s values.

First, take some time to understand the company role description and the team’s actual responsibilities. Do these align, or do you need to clarify something? Then consider the team dynamics. Are there rituals or unspoken rules? That can be around programming itself, testing, or even social aspects. It might be a good idea to either formalise anything you find here or make it clear that it’s encouraged but not required. Then move on to your own values and what you consider essential in your engineers. Trust, transparency, and willingness to learn are things that I find crucial when working with my engineers, but you might have other values that you use to create successful teams.

Once you’ve gotten the information written down, read through it and try to spot any contradictions hidden in the expectations. There might be different expectations from different parties that can make it challenging to navigate, leading to unnecessary stress for everyone involved. If it’s the case, you might have a more significant challenge ahead of you when aligning these expectations. However, while you’re tackling this, you can explain these dualities and how they might affect your reports.

After clearing all of this up, you’re ready to have a heart-to-heart with your report. Explain what you expect someone in their role to do and how it plays into the company goals. Tell them how you would like them to handle difficult situations, such as being transparent about their struggles. By giving them this clarity, they will be able to focus on their work instead of worrying about being judged on unknown parameters.

And of course, remember to celebrate success with your team when you see it and help your reports internalise their success. Be specific in your praise and the actions they took to make it happen instead of just focusing on the outcome. Help them truly see the difference they make.

Work with role models

There can be a lot of invisible pressure on you if you’re the only woman or POC in your team. One of the things a lot of women in tech struggle with, is the feeling of having to do better so you don’t live up to some of the negative stereotypes that exist about women in tech. Instead of seeing yourself as an individual, you see yourself as your entire gender or race, putting a lot of pressure on you. That means that every time you make a mistake, you’re not just making a mistake; you’re confirming a bias.

That’s why representation is so vital in all layers of an organisation. If you see other people like you, it’s a lot easier to see yourself as an individual with your own experiences.

You don’t have to worry about your mistakes preventing someone like you from being hired in the future. You don’t have to feel like the stereotype is accurate, and you’re only there because you managed to fake it so far. In short, you don’t have to feel like an Imposter.

Diversity is always something you should strive to achieve, but it can be difficult. Suppose you’re not at a place where this is possible right now. In that case, you can consider bringing in speakers from other companies or encourage participating in groups and events outside the organisation. Try to make sure there’s a balance between speakers talking about their experiences and technical topics to avoid people seeing it as just a token practice. Take some time as a manager to understand the unique challenges someone might face due to circumstances outside their control and the value they can bring - and show it.

Ensure everyone has a voice

One of the ways an Imposter tries to avoid someone discovering they’re not supposed to be there is to stay quiet, even if they’re highly knowledgeable in a topic. You might notice this if you know someone has worked on a project, yet they shrink when discussing it during planning. Answering in short sentences and deflecting are some key strategies they use.

When this occurs, highlighting their expertise and asking for further information can help bring out details they wouldn’t otherwise share. After they share something, quickly highlight the difference their input made, even if it is going in a different direction. Giving fast feedback can help lower the anxiety they feel after sharing something they’re uncomfortable with and help them understand the value they bring.

Another great way to ensure people have their voices heard is to push them towards opportunities they’re capable of but might hold back on pursuing. Encouraging opportunities to share their knowledge with the community can help them get more comfortable in other areas.

A way to break down the barrier that holds them back is to remind them that, even if they feel like they’re not experts, their knowledge can still be valuable to someone who hasn’t had the same experiences as them yet. We’re all at different stages in our lives, and sometimes, we don’t need the top expert on a topic but instead a person that can better relate to the challenges we’re facing at the moment. We all have a unique voice, and we should make it heard.

Pushing people forward like this requires a high degree of trust but can yield incredible results. Remember to accept a no if people aren’t ready to take that step, but let them know that you wouldn’t have asked them if you weren’t sure they were capable. Take the time to understand their reasons and work to build their confidence, then try again - getting rid of Imposter Syndrome is not an easy or fast process, but it is possible.

Is it worth it?

Absolutely! There tends to be a great employee behind an Imposter; after all, that’s how they got to be in a position where they doubt their skills unnecessarily. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing people suffering from Imposter Syndrome and, once they learn how to manage it, they always shine and take things to new heights, not just for themselves but for their teams and the company as well.

While it may seem like a lot of work, you should always strive to get the best out of people as an engineering manager. Helping people overcome their Imposter Syndrome is one of the best ways to make them take quantum leaps in their career and life.

About the Author

Sarah Vang Nøhr is an Engineering Manager at Prisma, and 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 months ago about 1:1s, effective delegation at work, career choices, and other relevant topics if you are yourself an Engineering Leader - enjoy!