Managing Impostor Syndrome

We’ve all been there, struggling to keep a good face on an assignment that felt anything but. Afraid we would fail. Afraid we would be found out. But we stuck with it, and out in the darkness a small win sputtered into light. Others joined it; before long, bright-burning confidence had banished our fears back into the shadows from where they came.

Until one day, when we saw a familiar look in a colleague’s eyes: the people around me—they’re geniuses. Do I really belong?

As managers, mentors, and teammates, we’re in this together. While small doses of self-doubt can provide healthy motivation, they should not be allowed to spill over into distraction. Individual performance slips. Team performance slips. And that’s bad news for execution.

We won’t ever be past impostor syndrome, but through clear expectations, personal development, and most of all empathy we can get from “not good enough” and on to being our best.

People

“Self-respect–the secure feeling that no one, as yet, is suspicious.”

–H. L. Mencken

Even employees embarking on new careers have formidable resources at their disposal. They have built up domain knowledge as hobbyists, volunteers, and students. They have solved problems, met deadlines, and mediated between competing demands. They’ve showed initiative and passion for the work.

Maybe a team member didn’t check every box on the job description. There were still compelling reasons to hire them.

Teams

The knowledge economy churns out far more information than any one cranium can store. Hence teams: by surrounding ourselves with a diversity of strengths, we’re able to tackle challenges well past our individual limits. We push one another to arrive at better answers. We depend on our colleagues’ expertise and readily share our own.

Healthy teams level the ebb and flow of individual abilities. Life happens. Projects change. Critical knowledge may be displaced by new technology, and new technology will doubtless depend on yet more knowledge. Even if none of our teammates can provide it directly, our collective experience will at least help buffer the change. That’s what teams are for.

Hiring

Outside the team our organization has a knowledge problem. Every one does.

This particular problem’s solution takes one of two forms: either we hire a specialist with a ready-made answer in hand, or we hire clever, adaptable person who can help us find it for ourselves. The decision tree goes like this:

  1. We’re in a hurry and can buy our way out of the problem—Specialist.
  2. Otherwise we’ll build the expertise in house.

Buy or build? We’re rarely in the market for immediate answers. Instead, we’re hiring people with the knowledge, experience, and mental agility to puzzle the answers out. If a new hire feels like they’re head-first in the deep end, well, that’s exactly what they were hired for.

There’s another side to this bargain, however: an investment in the future comes with an implicit commitment to the people that will help find them. Think of everyone that supported you and helped you succeed. It’s time to pay it forward.

Growth

Our teams need personal development to both increase and retain their talent. For many of our employees, new skills or increased responsibility were the selling point for a job. Good people that aren’t growing are looking for new opportunities. Teams that aren’t growing are dead.

Motivated people are adept at seeking new challenges, but much less so at seeking realistic timelines. Everyone wants to ship on the first day on the job or blow past a quarterly targets. But once we’re into the weeds the targets slip, and out come the doubts. Never mind what the boss expects of me: I’m not where I want to be.

Managers rarely see it that way. The sort of employee that can truly hit the ground running tends to wind up bored, and–unless responsibilities are adjusted to provide a deeper challenge–she won’t tend to stick around. We expect, want, and need a measure of eustress in the work. It should take time to settle in, earn the team’s trust, and be overwhelmed by the burden of past decisions.

New roles should be challenging. They should grow more comfortable over time, but eventually, just as mastery is peeking over the horizon, they should give way to something new. New responsibilities are assumed, a role changes, and the cycle begins anew. It won’t always feel awesome on the ground, but that’s how growth works.

We know how important growth is to the team: in fact, we’re counting on it. But there’s often a gap between our expectations for employees–that they will learn fast, find answers, and grow with the team–and the expectations they set for themselves.

Managing Impostor Syndrome

Competence, like truth, beauty and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder.

–Laurence J. Peter

Expectations are fickle things. It’s obvious that we expect employees to grow and that growth won’t be easy, but it feels patronizing to just up and say it. So we don’t, and only later do we recognize an employee struggling with his role on the team. What happened?

Through inaction–by not setting an expectation explicitly–we left room for our employee to set it for himself. Through whatever combination of off-hand comments and hear-say at the watercooler, he’s reached his own conclusion about where we expect him to be. He’s right where he needs to be, of course–the hiring process saw to that–but that may not be the way he sees it.

Unfortunately for us, set expectations can be fiendishly difficult to undo. If we aren’t able to correct it with a frank conversation, the next best bet may be to outrun the problem.

Our tool is structured growth, and it’s motivated by a simple rule: if expertise isn’t clear, there’s room for another expert.

When thinking about expertise, it’s useful to consider team members’ individual contributions from three different dimensions.

  1. “Hard” skills are the quantifiable abilities needed to do the job. Improvements to employees’ hard skills mean more problems anticipated, more obstacles circumvented, fewer defects and less rework. Production goes up.

  2. “Soft” skills are the communication skills and interpersonal abilities that let the team work effectively both together and within the organization. Leadership, writing, and conflict resolution all help employees function better as members of the team.

  3. Domain expertise comprises knowledge and skills specific to the team’s sector or industry. Ongoing research and education in the problem domain can spark unexpected insights and novel solutions to previously intractable problems.

While these skills are rarely distributed evenly across all members of the team, we ultimately need all three.

As luck would have it, “need” is also the next step in our growth model. While development teams typically enjoy a potent mix of hard skills, deliberate investments in soft skills or domain expertise can vastly improve their effectiveness. Support teams tend to put a premium on soft skills, but strong knowledge of both the domain and implementation help its agents care for customers. And while product teams need a deep knowledge of the domain, their success depends at least as much on negotiating realistic features and buy-in from the rest of the organization. Quickly inventory the team’s existing strengths against opportunities to improve.

Different team members each bring their own strengths, but it’s a safe bet that with enough deliberate practice, anyone can improve. Perceived weakness isn’t a problem; in fact, the biggest improvements often arise where individuals are least comfortable. If someone has just transitioned to a new industry–from fintech to education, say–brushing up on pedagogy or current educational standards may be more valuable than polishing already-formidable programming abilities. If they are a recent graduate, ongoing coaching in professional practice may help speed their integration. There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule for maximizing personal development, but discomfort probably isn’t a bad place to start.

Teams develop their collective strength along similar lines. Senior developers working together on a new project will contribute more knowledge to the team by studying their new domain than they would from brushing up on esoteric design patterns. New teams will see more value from practicing deliberate communication than almost anything else. These needs may not be aligned with every individual’s optimal trajectory, but they too can be helpful when considering priorities.

If you aren’t already investing in structured growth, consider it. Individual development is one of very few investments with geometric returns for the team’s capacity and confidence. Weaknesses will fade. Strengths will expand. And experts will start to emerge.

Just In Time

Nobody is expected to know it all. Teams integrate knowledge, smooth our gaps, and support ongoing growth in the service of their collaborative ventures. We don’t hire with the expectation that we’re getting all the answers–only that our team members will be able to figure them out. That isn’t always as obvious as it seems to us.

We communicate expectations where we can, support growth where we haven’t, and acknowledge both individual strengths and the absolute necessity of imperfection. Not everyone knows everything, and that’s kind of the point. Learning everything would be exhausting—and besides, it wouldn’t work.

Need answers? That’s why we’re a team.

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Hey, I'm RJ: digital entomologist and intermittent micropoet, writing from the beautiful Rose City.