I have been thinking about Imposter Syndrome quite a bit lately and how it can impact confidence and I have come to a couple of conclusions. First a definition of Imposter Syndrome:

Impostor syndrome (IS) refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it has links to perfectionism and the social context.

To put it simply, imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a phony—you feel as though at any moment you are going to be found out as a fraud—like you don't belong where you are, and you only got there through dumb luck. It can affect anyone no matter their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise.

For a long time I assumed that these feelings were normal and took the position that dealing with them was just a me problem. While I continue to think some of it is true these feeling can be exacerbated by the environment I am working in. For me it is created by the unfounded idea that I do not know enough, and while that may be true, a more important truth is that no one really ever does know all the important things.

Safe environments

Creating  a safe working environment is clearly important but often the kinds of safety people are looking may not obvious. At Microsoft we talk about the idea of continuous learn and sharing and directly contrast that with information hoarding. Another way I think about that is we value those who learn with added premium on sharing and disseminating, we subsequently devalue those workflows that simply stockpile information.

While your teammates are in their learning stage (and there will be many) it is critical that everyone understands they will never experience harm, vilification or disrespect. Manager’s really have to make the commitment here to allow and even celebrate the acquisition of knowledge without fear of ridicule.

The most underrated opportunity to increase confidence and reduce imposter syndrome is by creating a great onboarding process. The faster you can get a team member to be productive the better!

One of the best experience I had with onboarding was with a health startup. They had a complex system that spanned multiple machines, servers, services and devices and they had a developer install process that led you through every step. After performing this rather elaborate, but well documented, installation I was able to immediately make meaningful contributions to the team. The idea of being able to make contributions in minutes was amazing for my confidence.

Teams with well planned on-boarding processes, that include things like a good buddy system, docs, instructions, and even starter projects, will produce productive engineers with less inclination to imposter syndrome.

Create multiple experts

Setting up new team members as “go to” experts in any area does wonders for confidence. Having a set of skills and capabilities that is valuable to other team members builds self-assurance. Providing support for you team, no matter how small, helps our weird subconscious make peace with the fact that we do not know everything, others may know more than you but your knowledge has a place and is important. Positioning our knowledge and contributions as complimentary rather than as a strict subset of other team members helps alleviate the burden of imposter syndrome.

Power portal plaque, Niagara Falls NY

People who experience imposter syndrome may actually be the ones being honest about their perceived lack of knowledge. Folks who feel secure in their environment often have the confidence to describe their gaps without fear of repercussions. I try to encourage experts to get comfortable talking about the gaps in their knowledge out loud, it might just help folks who feel less safe cope with their own gaps and doubts.


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