Combatting Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is a set of unpleasant feelings that can hit anyone who’s had a comparatively high level of success or achievement, especially if they’re go-getters by nature (ahem, like many people who are drawn to entrepreneurship). Two psychologists identified and named the phenomenon in 1978. Broadly, having impostor syndrome means feeling like you’re not worthy of the position, responsibility, or accolades you’ve earned, despite your accomplishments, skills, and knowledge. Even though you may see signs of your own success, you may not believe in them and instead worry that you’ll be found out as a fraud. These feelings can even spur depression and anxiety, and otherwise negatively impact mental health for some.

I have dealt with impostor syndrome a lot at LaunchX, and in my own life. I had a major case when I first started Harvard Business School [link to piece on 7 HBS Lessons]. I was surrounded by brilliant, motivated, highly accomplished students from all over the world, some of whom had experiences that were vastly different from my own and whose list of achievements made my jaw drop. As a result, I was more than intimidated; I even had a few moments of wondering whether I belonged among them.

At LaunchX, I see bright kids from all over the country join other smart teens who want to change the world and do big things. I know before anyone says anything that some students are asking themselves when I or someone else will discover we made a mistake in admitting them. It’s understandable: they’re chatting and getting really excited that they’ve found other ambitious and brilliant peers, while internally freaking out that everyone seems so much more accomplished, and wondering if they’re on the same level.

To mitigate this, I give a talk on the first acknowledging how it feels to be in their shoes, and bringing their attention to a few important things of which they might otherwise lose track:

  1. I explain the “resume vs. reality” concept. We all have a polished, on-paper version of ourselves. It’s carefully and meticulously constructed and leaves out anything that’s not amazing or inspiring. But that list of accomplishments doesn’t tell us the whole story. It doesn’t give us a view into the anxiety behind the scenes, the struggles and hard work, the number of failures that went into each success. It’s a limited view, not the full picture.
  2. I assure them we don’t make admissions mistakes and reiterate that they all deserve to be there. Their confidence in themselves may be down, but hopefully they believe that we have good judgment, so reminding them that the capable people in charge chose them for specific reasons can help restore a little of their faith in themselves. We stress that something in each of them convinced us they had the makings of an entrepreneur, and that spark is going to look different for every student. And we reiterate that what we value, more than just their accomplishments, is their sense of initiative, resourcefulness, perseverance, ingenuity, and work ethic. We also let them in on the secret that every person in the room has some quirky interest they’ve actively pursued outside the traditional channels of clubs and classes. Regardless of what it seems like from their self-conscious perspectives, everyone is impressive in their own ways and we make sure they know we think so.
  3. I talk about what this means for how we expect them to approach the program. They shouldn’t feel pressured to learn and perfect every single aspect of being involved in a startup. Marketers don’t need to learn to code; engineers don’t need to do PR; programmers don’t need to be visionaries. Instead, they should each home in on the strengths and qualities that made them stand out enough to be selected, and truly develop those. It’s not about being a jack-of-all-trades, and they shouldn’t feel less-than if they don’t excel at everything.

These key points seem to help most LaunchXers ease into the program and feel more comfortable with who they are in the new context. It’s not always easy for them, or people in the workforce, college, or startup competitions/accelerators.

Impostor syndrome is more complex than just feeling out of place because everyone around you is equally (or perhaps, in your eyes, more) exceptional. It can, for instance, be triggered by being in some way different from the majority of your peers in a program, company, or industry, especially along gender or racial lines. According to Dr. Suzanne Imes (one of the psychologists who initially pinpointed and described the Impostor Syndrome phenomenon), people who come from highly accomplished families or grew up in environments that “placed a big emphasis on achievement” are especially susceptible. And they’re more likely to find themselves entangled by it during periods of transition, when embarking on a new adventure, getting a promotion, and so on.

It also manifests differently depending on what aspect of someone’s personality drives it, according to expert Valerie Young. She breaks sufferers down into 5 types: the Perfectionist, the Superwoman/man, the Natural Genius, the Rugged Individualist, and the Expert. In each case, impostor syndrome is tied to the way the person generally approaches tasks, and indicates how they navigate the experience that is causing them this internal commotion.

Recognizing which of the impostor syndrome categories you fall into, and how it shapes your behavior as a result, can help you get a handle on it. Do you feel like a “phony” if you ask for help from others, and therefore refuse aid in an attempt to prove you truly belong where you are, like the Rugged Individualist does? Or are you a Natural Genius — highly skilled or talented, and prone to focusing on your abilities, rather than your your efforts, convinced that if you don’t get everything right the first time you’re obviously a fraud?

I can’t stress this enough, but impostor syndrome does damage beyond just causing inner turmoil and making things harder on us than they have to be. It is very capable of affecting performance and results. Some in the throes of it will feel so insecure they’re unable to make any moves, take any steps, for fear that getting one thing wrong means they’ll be revealed as being in over their heads. They collapse in on themselves with self-doubt and lack of agency. Others take the opposite approach, puffing themselves up and becoming overly confident (at least outwardly), just to combat the niggling inner voice telling them they don’t deserve what they’ve gotten or that it’s a fluke.

Squashing impostor syndrome in yourself

There’s a fair amount of advice out there about beating impostor syndrome as an individual. First up in the process is identifying the potential reasons you’re experiencing it when you are. A recent promotion? A new, mentally and creatively charged environment? Being the only person of color on your team or at your company?

Knowing why it’s reared its head may help you to connect the dots that it’s not actually indicative of your worthiness or aptitude, but more a product of anxiety about being in that situation. In other words, if you can pinpoint that you began feeling this way strongly when you took on a higher level position or got to present at a conference and be surrounded by brilliant peers, it can help you realize that your self-doubt is not a sign of your worth, it’s just an indicator of how you’re processing this particular situation.

It’s also important to talk to your mentors when you start to doubt yourself and your abilities to the point where you feel fraudulent. It’s not about getting pep talks or having your ego inflated; it’s about going back to the people who believe in you, whose opinions you trust, respect, and value, and getting their take on it. Tell them your concerns; they may have been there before!

It’s also a good practice to take stock of your accomplishments and milestones when you start to feel like a fraud. If you think you got somewhere based on something other than your work, mindset, and ideas, making a list of your past contributions may help you realize that you do deserve to be where you are. When you start wondering whether you somehow duped people into giving you the chance you’ve gotten, recall the effort and wins that brought you to the present moment.

It’s also a good idea to shift how you think about obtaining opportunities. If you’re thinking about it in the sense of someone “giving” them to you — “giving you a chance”, “giving you a project to helm” — then you’re framing it as something that you had no agency in or control over. Instead, try thinking of it as you “earning” whatever recent measure of success has made you question yourself. You earned the chance to speak at that conference or helm that project. You earned your spot in that selective accelerator. Those with the authority to do so didn’t elevate you based on charity, or mindlessly hand you responsibilities. They did it because it made business sense. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be grateful for your opportunities. However, remember that just because you’re grateful to be where you are doesn’t mean you arrived there without merit.

Creating an environment that shuts down impostor syndrome

As a startup founder, it’s your job to ensure your organization is a place where impostor syndrome doesn’t flourish. You don’t have control over employees’ individual headspaces, but there are steps you can take in crafting a workplace environment and running the company in ways that help everyone feel valued, purposeful, and confident.

Establish a mentoring program. Since mentors can be so important in helping people ground themselves to protect against impostor syndrome, a mentorship program at your startup can be a great boon for all involved. Mentoring helps junior- and mid-level team members view themselves in a realistic light, and provide a context wherein they can share their worries and concerns. A mentor makes sure their mentees are consistently “seen”, and can provide guidance and support whenever frustrations arise. Plus, mentors help workers develop and grow within their roles and careers. And when a mentor who might be struggling with impostor syndrome themselves finds that they’re helping someone else, it benefits them, too. It’s a valuable relationship for both parties.

Make one-on-one time with your rockstars a priority. This does not mean you have to be everyone’s mentor! But it does mean that, especially if you’re the CEO or in another C-level role, you should be checking in with everyone individually from time to time. How often will depend on many factors, including the size of your team. It may become unrealistic once your company grows from a few dozen to a few thousand, but it’s worth the effort if you can manage it.

Give positive, specific feedback wherever possible. If you let your employees know that you see them and the products of their efforts often enough, it lessens the chance they’ll think they’re flying under the radar not doing great work and somehow still manage to stay employed. Let people know when something they’ve done has made a positive impact on your business. Make your feedback as specific as you can, because that reinforces their value based on objective markers. While statements like “you’re valuable to the team” and “great work” are wonderful to hear, specific statements like “your Project Y initiative helped grow our customer base by 5%, which was a major milestone at this stage” will remind that team member of the measurable accomplishments they’ve had.

Foster collaboration over competition. Friendly competition can energize certain teams (Sales, for instance). But competition done wrong is toxic. Run the kind of company where people feel they can come to their teammates for advice or help where they have weaknesses, instead of one where they fear they’ll be revealed as frauds for asking a question or not being as good at something as everyone else. If you do use competition to spark creativity and further incentivize hitting goals, make the rewards things that are not directly impactful on the person’s job. For instance, your top salesperson of the month could receive a gift card to a local restaurant or store, or something silly like a trophy that can move to the next top seller the following month. Don’t make it about simply not being the “weakest link”.

Do diversity right. Since women and racial minorities may be especially susceptible to impostor syndrome, it’s important to be mindful about the way diversity is treated at your startup. I go into in greater depth on this subject in a recent post, but the key is making sure no one feels singled out for being different, as that can lead them to wonder if they’re there to fill a quota.

Facilitate social gatherings that don’t involve talking only about work. At LaunchX, we make sure that the students in our program get opportunities to share aspects of themselves that are not directly work-related. This helps them get a more well-rounded view of each other, and realize that they all have unique talents that may not be apparent on a resume or within their roles in the startup they’re building. When you hold team events and activities that don’t revolve around work plans and metrics, and are just social in nature, it helps people get to know one another in multifaceted ways, and feel less afraid they’ll be found out as impostors.

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