Your direct report says they have imposter syndrome. Now what?

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"How to deal with imposter syndrome." The search will return more than 6 million results. Create a brag sheet. Seek out criticism. Fake it till you make it. If imposter syndrome feels stressful, the sheer number of ideas to resolve it can be overwhelming. 

So your direct report has come to you for guidance and support. "I want to contribute to this committee, but when I look around the room I feel like the least-experienced person in the room," she tells you over lunch. "On paper, I may belong. But I get in my own head, and I feel as though it holds me back." 

Before turning your mentee back to the Wild West of imposter syndrome cures, read a handful that editors at Becker's have found most meritorious and worthy of leaders' consideration. 

  1. Double check: Is this truly imposter syndrome? The goal here is not to gaslight your doubt-ridden direct report, but to ensure their intent, energy and emotions are channeled toward the right target. Feelings of exclusion can easily be mislabeled as imposter syndrome. But sometimes the source is much more relentless, systemic and difficult to control: structural oppression, bias or exclusion. "Many of us across the world are implicitly, if not explicitly, told we don't belong in white- and male-dominated workplaces," Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey wrote for Harvard Business Review in their piece, "Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome." "The answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals but to create an environment that fosters a variety of leadership styles and in which diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities are seen as just as professional as the current model."

  2. Think back: When have you felt this way? A dizzying effect of imposter syndrome is how uniquely personal, raw and rare it can feel. Here's the thing: It's hardly uncommon. Three out of 4 female executives reported feeling imposter syndrome at some point in their career, a study by consultant firm KPMG found. Research on its prevalence dates back to 1978, when the term was first coined by two female researchers, Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, and Suzanne Imes, PhD, from Atlanta-based Georgia State University — the same decade women flooded into the workforce. As a leader, offer up moments you felt imposter syndrome to lessen the charge and power of what can be an emotional and isolating experience for up-and-comers.

    "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out,'" Maya Angelou once said. Storytelling and relating might not resolve your colleagues' imposter syndrome, but it will certainly help them feel less alone or flawed in navigating it. In fact, they'll know they're in good company.

  3. Separate feelings from fact: Is there more evidence suggesting she's an imposter or more that she's not? Susan Albers, PsyD, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic, said imposter syndrome is most experienced by smart, high-achieving people. "True imposters don't have this feeling," Dr. Albers said. Remind your direct report that the context for why she's feeling this way matters. Imposter syndrome can be exacerbated by gender gaps in healthcare leadership. If she doesn't see leaders like her, it can make her feel like she doesn't belong.

    "We're more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don't see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field," Emily Hu, PhD, a clinical psychologist, told the BBC. Even though anxiety can seem immune to reason, understanding the source of those feelings and being confronted with the evidence that they're not fact-based can give even the biggest worrier a sense of relief.

  4. Challenge insecurities: Can you offer words of affirmation? Women struggling with imposter syndrome may give vaguely negative feedback on their performance. They may say things such as, "I sounded like an idiot in that meeting," or, "I'll never be able to keep up with them." Offering words of affirmation can improve their self-confidence and challenge destructive thoughts, W. Brad Johnson, PhD, and David Smith, PhD, said in a 2019 report titled "Mentoring Someone With Imposter Syndrome" published in Harvard Business Review. Reminding her of her worth and consistently calling out her achievements can drown out feelings of self-doubt. She may even struggle with handing over the praise to others. Women are especially likely to attribute success to luck, their teammates or even credit mentors for achievements while simultaneously downplaying their own talent and achievement. When she gives someone else credit for her work — even you — politely remind her that she deserves every ounce of credit she receives.

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