By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University
When new employees join your organization, they have a lot to learn, right off the bat, ranging from where to park to when they are expected in the office to how to do work successfully. And, they’re navigating a lot of new relationships with colleagues, with peers, and with you. In many large and small ways, they’re trying to find their place. And you, the manager, have a lot to do with their ability to do that successfully.
Humans are social beings by nature. We like to be in community with one another. And, there is a very good chance that, for the first time in their lives, your new employee is having to build community with people who are considerably older than they are. And possibly doing this over videoconference. This would challenge anyone, no matter their life stage. Many new professionals simply lack the experience or the skills to know how to show up, be authentic to who they are, and be professional. And that can lead to strong feelings of impostor syndrome, that feeling of not belonging, not fitting in, or not having what it takes to be successful there. Your job, as the manager, is to identify when this is happening and to help your employee to work through it so that it doesn’t have long-term impacts on their ability to be successful or their health and well-being.
There are many ways that impostor syndrome can show up at work, but often it manifests in one of the following. One, they adopt a mode of timidity, not daring to speak up or share their opinion, constantly seeking out feedback and affirmation, and prefacing their statements with things like, “I may be wrong, but…,” or, “I don’t know what I’m talking about, but…” Or, two, they try to cover with exaggerated bravado, trying to do everything on their own, not asking questions when they should, and seeming to “know-it-all” and brush off suggestions or offers for help. Either approach will be harmful to them if left unchecked.
In the first case, it’s important for you as the manager to pull the employee aside and make note of where they are hesitating when they should not be. Identify the moments that they use self-deprecating or self-defeating language and how it lands in the room. Point out their skills and strengths and how they can use them to add value to their work projects and colleagues. Encourage them in the moment by asking for their opinion. Everyone needs affirmation now and again. But if they are seeking it constantly and unnecessarily, that is a conversation you need to have with them.
In the second case, it’s also important for you to pull the employee aside and talk about their behavior. Make note of the times where they seem to want to go it alone instead of inviting in other perspectives and advice from their more-experienced colleagues. Openly discuss how this sort of behavior is impacting their work. Point out places where they should be asking questions before charging forward. Remind them that you want them to be successful and discuss how these types of behaviors can stall or even derail their career long-term.
Let’s be clear. Using the term “impostor syndrome” is not an excuse for poor management or organizational behavior. When organizations open the doors to Black, LGBTQ, female, neurodiverse, and other individuals who do not fit the white, male, cisgender norm, but do not create the systems and structures that elevate those voices and experiences and provide opportunities for advancement, it leads to self-doubt and devaluing their experiences, if not outright harmful behaviors of bias, discrimination, and racism. That’s not impostor syndrome, that’s organizations blaming the individual instead of looking for ways to improve the organization.
And, you can help your people find great mentors, sponsors, and others who can help them to work through professional and personal challenges and goals, including navigating impostor syndrome. If your employee is struggling to find their place or to find confidence in their abilities, help them to identify someone who has worked through that and who can share their story in a confidential space. It will help your employee grow in their skills and build community, it will help the employee serving as a mentor to grow in their skills and understanding of others’ experiences, and ultimately it will help you, as a manager, too.
Your job, as a manager, is to make sure that all your employees feel heard, feel valued, and have opportunities to grow and develop in their careers based solely on their performance, skills, and abilities, and not on their identities. Your job is not to “fix people,” it’s to create a healthy, inclusive organization that values diverse experiences and voices.
For more advice on how to create a culture that supports your employees’ growth, check out Year One, our resource for new professionals and their managers.