As a manager, you should be actively helping your engineers suffering from imposter syndrome; changing their mindset from seeing the feelings as negative and stagnant, to using them in creating a positive growth plan.
Learning about imposter syndrome through the lens of Google will lead you to countless articles, talks, videos and blogs. These are all different forms of media from various content creators, but all have the common theme of portraying imposter syndrome as a negative experience. This article does not follow that theme. Instead, it's focused on how leaders can use imposter syndrome to empower those around them.
Imposter syndrome is a feeling that affects an individual who is accomplished and highly skilled at their job, but still feels that at any moment someone will find out they are not either and they will be outed as a fraud. Through recent studies, we know that if just one of your identities makes you an "other", the likelihood of you experiencing imposter syndrome is higher. Individuals with identities that intersect are more likely to experience imposter syndrome than those who do not. We understand that the environment we work in supports several isms by default. We know this plays into which and how individuals experience feeling like an imposter.
As leaders on technical teams and in our communities, we can't continue to allow these patterns created by a system that doesn't support everyone.
Through the community work I've done over the years with Tech By Choice, and my time spent as an engineering manager, I have been able to pick up on patterns when people feel like an imposter. Through these learnings, I created a framework that provides structure and perspective to help folks grow. To understand the framework, we have to understand the issues people face when they have a lack of structure, and a fear of asking for help.
The need for structure
Humans crave structure and patterns, and when they are lacking, folks can start to spiral due to uncertainty. When I think of structure and human behavior, I think of developmental psychology; a practice that is centered around milestones, benchmarks and goals. These are all things that can be absent from the tech industry when it comes to career development. Most tech companies do not have career frameworks that are centered around milestones, benchmarks and goals, yet these were all engraved into our life through schooling and developmental growth. When we enter the real world, we lose this structure, this support. We have no practical guide on what's expected or how to know if we're on track. This can be particularly distressing in the workplace and consequently exacerbate imposter syndrome.
Asking for help
Asking for help early on can stop the negative feelings associated with feeling like an imposter, but this can feel impossible to do. While someone’s anxiety is high and they are already questioning if they belong, speaking up to say they don't know something is the last thing on their mind. This is especially true for those whose identities make them feel othered.
In these situations, it's essential for the person to learn phrases they can use to ask for help that still gives them power. A piece of advice that I like to share with people is to reframe what asking for help means. By shifting the language from ‘asking for help is weak’ to ‘asking for help gets me closer to reaching my goal’, it allows them to keep their perceived power.
After understanding some of the reasons that cause imposter syndrome, I created a framework for managers to help their direct reports work their way out of it. Through this three-step framework, I found a way to help anyone change their environment or mindset around feeling like an imposter.
Step 1: Tell me about a time you felt like an imposter?
When working with someone, you want to ask them to explain the last time they felt like an imposter. Lead the conversation, so they are focused on the external factors that created their internal feelings.
For example, the external action of receiving a task that they don’t know how to do can cause the internal feelings of feeling frozen and stuck, and thoughts such as ‘I don’t deserve my role’ or ‘I’m not knowledgeable enough’.
This theme of not feeling good enough is common for those who are new to a company or title. Working with them to identify patterns that prevent their growth is key to ensuring their onboarding process is a positive one.
Step 2: What structure did you lack the last time you feel like an imposter?
Identifying a lack of structure as the root cause can help us break down the external actions that caused someone to feel like an imposter.
For example, the external factors here could be a range of things from the ticket being incorrectly leveled, to the ticket not having the details required to get the job done. External factors are mostly out of one's control, but sometimes internal reactions stop people from changing their external environment.
Following the example covered in the last step of a new team member explaining the uneasy feeling of taking on a difficult task, we must ask questions to identify a structure that works for them in order to prevent the uneasy feeling. Ask them which workflows they have liked in the past. Sometimes the engineer doesn't know the structure they need, but as managers, it is important that we work with them to help figure it out.
Step 3: Create a growth plan
When someone feels overwhelmed by the negative thoughts imposter syndrome can bring, they will need a plan to fall back on to pull them out of the situation quickly. During this phase, we want to workshop phrases they can use to ask for help. This could be asking a coworker how they would accomplish something, to coming right out and saying that they don't know how to do something.
An example growth plan for an engineer could like this:
- Start strong by using one of your power phrases to ask for help.
- Find a co-worker or a Slack group that you can reach out to for more support.
- While working with someone else, create a study guide of things you can learn, so the next time you run into this, you have a game plan.
Leveraging this framework will allow you to build better connections with your direct reports and improve your leadership skills. Understanding and supporting those around you when they can't see their own potential can improve retention rates and employee engagement. Moving through this framework pushes leaders to build trust and find ways to support individual growth plans.
As leaders we can shape how others feel during their career in tech. Leveraging this framework lets your engineers know that it's ok to not know something, because in our industry, it's impossible to know everything no matter how niche your domain may be. When an engineer starts to feel like an imposter, we should allow them to use those feelings to empower them to learn more, not make them fearful of the learning process.