How can I help a colleague overcome imposter syndrome?

If low confidence and poor self-esteem are holding back someone you work with, the best approach is to help them get curious about why.

⏳ 3min read — enough time to drink 0.3 iced americanos ❄️
Author is therapist Graham Landi
Graham Landi,
Spill Therapist & Manager Trainer

It's the mid-nineties and I'm in the Jolly Roger bar at Center Parcs on the Belgian border at a national sales conference.

I've just been promoted into quite a senior role in a global blue chip organisation and I'm talking to a friend and colleague at an evening reception.

"I often think that I'm not worth the money I'm paid", I tell him.

He looks at me, puzzled, through the murky light and thumping music.

At that time I thought the things I found easy to do were ineffective and without value, and the tasks I found hard were proof I wasn't up to the job.

What I needed most of all at this point, and what anyone feeling similarly in any organisation needs, is someone to talk to about their feelings of inferiority.

Good leadership and mentoring creates a feedback loop in which employees can get an idea of how well they are doing through listening to the perspective of someone else, rather than existing in a perilous echo chamber of their own self-doubt.

Just this week I've read two separate pieces on the subject of Imposter Syndrome; both well argued, extensively referenced, and laying the blame squarely at the feet of employers. 

Anecdotal evidence in my work with clients does suggest that the modern workplace is a tough arena if your confidence is waning.

There's rarely time or resource for extensive training. Support through feedback and mentoring are sporadic as companies try to do more with fewer people, and so employees increasingly struggle to know who to turn to when they wonder if they're delivering.

Worse still is that when we feel we're not good enough we are less inclined to ask questions and take decisions for fear of proving we are as inadequate as we suspect. So we spiral down in a self-perpetuating cycle of self-doubt, taking our performance with us.

When we feel we're not good enough we are less inclined to ask questions and take decisions for fear of proving we are as inadequate as we suspect.

So, having proper support structures in place which facilitate an open, trusting, non-judgemental, and two-way conversation with employees will help in identifying team members who question their worth, and provide the opportunity to mitigate the impact of their imbalanced view — but it's not the only dimension.

Regardless of how well employees are cared for in the workplace, the roots of Imposter Syndrome can reach much further back into our developmental psychology.

I discovered through therapy that my own feelings of Imposter Syndrome were rooted in childhood. 

When there is an absence of praise, an abundance of it for no clear reason, or a feeling that the love of caregivers is conditional on us being who we think they want us to be, we can begin to question our worth and a lack of self-belief frequently develops.

It's easy to see the parallels between these early foundational lessons and the way they might be reinforced in the workplace. 

But no employer, however people-focused, can be expected to identify this embedded dysfunction and neither should they because this is the work of therapy.

What makes Imposter Syndrome such a tough nut to crack is the plethora of places it may have originated, and the similarly numerous ways in which it can be sustained, either in the workplace or outside of it.

Unsurprisingly, the question "So what can I do about it?" comes up often from Spill users.

It's easy to jump into listing practical steps, but long term change is only achieved through understanding the origins of imposter syndrome and the ways in which it is being sustained.

Long term change is only achieved through understanding the origins of imposter syndrome and the ways in which it is being sustained.

Once I told my therapist that I often felt like an imposter because I could do a lot of things but I didn't feel expert enough at any of them.

He said, "If you feel like an imposter, you're probably not the best judge."

It was a precious insight that helped me realise how a skewed self-awareness is not the best basis from which to try and be self-aware. Someone else is generally needed for balance.

Of course, being in therapy is, in many respects, like having a mentor.

If we want to help the people in our organisations really tackle Imposter Syndrome we'll do it one at a time, through the prism of their stories. We'll do it through implementing processes and policies that help us to understand them as people which, in a happy irony, was always the way to get the very best from them anyway.

Spill's 5 tips for putting all that into practice...

🗣   Encourage people to talk about how they're feeling.
And then really listen to them: helping people to feel heard, validated and part of the group does wonders for their self-esteem.

💪   Acknowledge endeavour as much as achievement.
At Amazon, goals aren't celebrated if they weren't achieved in the right way. Try to focus on the how as much as the what.

🔭.  Help them find a mentor outside the organisation.
They can offer objective feedback, support and guidance. By being external, this person can be 100% on their side, with no politics.

👊   Reframe the challenge at hand for them.
Encouraging people to see that taking on uncomfortable work is a sign of growth rather than an issue of capability can be transformative.

🧞‍♀️  Signpost the person towards a qualified coach or therapist.
Speaking to someone with expertise in self-esteem and confidence can help get to the root of their imposter syndrome much quicker.