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How to Lead a Team of ‘Imposters’.

We recently published a piece on Imposter Syndrome – the insufferable sense of incompetence, insubordination, and under-qualification that riddles our society and has us all half expecting to be shown the door at any given moment. We explored its symptoms, its effects, who suffers, and what we can do to overcome it so as to, essentially, meet our full potential. But as a company that is rooted in leadership development, employee engagement and productivity, we would like to revisit the topic and shed some light on the relationship between Imposter Syndrome and leadership, and in particular, how mentors should approach their role as leader, knowing that a large proportion of their mentees, regardless of background, are likely to be affected by Imposter Syndrome.

As a first priority, mentors must be conscious of who makes up their team. People from minority backgrounds who are operating within our male-dominated and ethnically-hierarchical society will be more susceptible to the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome. In order to be an effective leader, it is, therefore, important to be aware of the effects that this can have on confidence, collaboration and overall levels of productivity within the workplace, and to call on suitable leadership strategies that can help. 

Ditch the stereotypes

Specifically, when dealing with mentees of minority status, for example, women and people of colour within a predominantly male, white environment, it is absolutely crucial that feelings of insubordination or intrusion that are rooted in prejudice are not sustained by those in leadership roles. Instead, leaders should be aware of their responsibility to deliberately obviate unhelpful stereotypes; to encourage, teach and develop the skills and confidence of their mentees, regardless of who they are. Being careful with use of language, and deliberate about avoiding stereotype threat-based performance anxiety, for example by speaking out about the irrelevance of gender, race, sexuality, etc on work-related tasks, will alleviate feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt within a team.

Give credit where it’s due

Good leaders are attuned to the imposter-related stresses of those they manage and are well equipped to counteract it with positivity, encouragement, and guidance. They are also acutely aware of what their mentees individually bring to the table, and how the collective body benefits from their efforts. One of the most proficient ways to ensure that Imposter Syndrome does not affect productivity and engagement within the workplace is by offering affirmation and ensuring that credit is given where and when it is due. Leaders must understand the weight that their appreciation and acknowledgment holds, and find the balance between constructive criticism and praise. They must also be attuned to the tendency for Imposter Syndrome sufferers to brush off praise and attribute their successes to luck, extreme preparation, external help, or any other extrinsic influence. It is important that when met with this behaviour, leaders respond by explaining matter-of-factly why the mentee deserves credit, and encourage them to acknowledge their achievement. It may take time and patience in the short-term but will aid in collective productivity and engagement in the long-term.

Open up the conversation

The more we share our experiences, the more we find common ground and feel less alone. Good leadership is knowing when to open the lines of personal communication, share similarities and ultimately expose the commonalities of our insecurities. For a mentee, talking to a respected leader and learning of their own battles with feelings of fraudulence or inadequacy can be a powerful awakening to the fact that negative self-perception is often fundamentally irrational, and terribly unproductive, but that ultimately it is normal. Combined with some affirmation and understanding, having an open conversation can work wonders to diminish the feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome, and in turn will improve the productivity, collaboration, and engagement of those you manage.

Making time to talk, and to allow yourself to appear vulnerable and flawed as a mentor, will teach those who look up to you that even their role models, who may appear at the top of their game, have also experienced feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence along the way, but have come out on top. Being a good leader doesn’t always mean quashing vulnerability, adopting a strong persona and powering through in the hope that others will follow. It’s about finding the balance, seeing the individual in those you lead and creating space for them to do the same with you. It takes little effort to offer a few words of encouragement or to give credit where it’s due, but these seemingly trivial acts can have a hugely beneficial impact on the people you lead, and on workplace culture, engagement and productivity as a whole.

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