Recently, one of my clients received a promotion. A brilliant, hardworking executive in her organization, she couldn’t have been better equipped for the job. Yet when she told me the news, she sounded hesitant: “Right place, right time,” she said, later asking, “Who am I to be managing a team?”
As an executive coach, I recognize this behavior in many of my clients: feeling like a fraud, recounting how they “bluffed” their way through a board meeting, shrugging off success. Like many driven perfectionists, they’re experiencing impostor syndrome, the struggle to internalize and accept their accomplishments, always doubting their deservedness and abilities. In a Harvard Business Review article (registration required) exploring impostor syndrome, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries calls it “the flip side of giftedness” and notes it “causes many talented, hardworking, and capable leaders […] to believe that they don’t deserve their success.”
Impostor syndrome affects people in all stages of their education and careers, but Kets de Vries observes the problem runs rampant in C-suite, managerial or leadership positions. “Often, a leader’s feelings of self-doubt and anxiety are less pressing when he is lower on the totem pole […] But once a leader becomes the CEO, everything he does is highly visible. He is expected to stand on his own.”
The costs of impostor syndrome extend beyond the individual. With a leader suffering from impostor syndrome at the helm, an organization feels the effects. The procrastination, perfectionism, over-preparation, self-sabotage and self-censoring that characterize impostor syndrome can deplete time and resources, and, most adversely, employee morale.
Fortunately, leaders can combat impostor syndrome — in themselves and their teams — by actively revamping their organizational culture. Here are three ways leaders can help their high-performing teams learn, develop and excel while overcoming fear and uncertainty:
1. Strategize Vulnerability
MIT’s Sloan Management Review posits that “vulnerability, the willingness to fail and to do so openly, should be a core competency for many leaders.” Saul Kaplan, founder and “chief catalyst” of BIF-5’s Collaborative Innovation Summit, believes “innovation requires a vulnerability most people are not comfortable with.” To transform the culture that breeds impostor syndrome, leaders need to make vulnerability a part of their organization’s strategy.
Vulnerability from leadership opens the channels of communication in employees, inviting greater transparency and connection in turn. But fostering empathy and building authenticity is only the beginning. To truly operationalize vulnerability, it needs to be paired with vision.
What does this mean? Leaders should have difficult conversations — messily, emotionally — but offer solutions. Show that when uncertainty or duress strikes, it doesn’t have to result in panic or despair.
2. Promote Problem Solving
Encouraging a team to figure out the solutions to the problems they’re up against is more than just effective delegation: It’s proof that the leader believes in their skill and acumen. But it’s not the stamp of approval that eradicates impostor syndrome. When employees tackle challenges, their sense of validity — and mastery — will grow.
As Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, shared with Time, “the only difference between someone who experiences impostor syndrome and someone who does not is how they respond to challenges.” Entrusting employees with challenges in the first place will reinforce their confidence: They’re up to the job.
3. Make Questions Commonplace
Inviting questions is imperative in combating the perfectionism that gives way to impostor syndrome. Dr. Brené Brown calls perfectionism “‘the 20-ton shield.’ We carry it around, thinking it’s going to protect us from being hurt. But it protects us from being seen.”
Questions help us put down those 20-ton shields and everything they’re defending. Leaders must create a culture of learning, where asking questions is the norm, where a gap in knowledge invites collaboration and sharing — rather than withdrawal and shame.
Originally posted on Forbes