In the first few pages of Sheryl Sandberg’s hit book, Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead she shares her personal experience with the Imposter Syndrome–“the phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt.” (And throughout the book she adeptly blends her personal experience with the rigor of research, all wrapped up in an engaging narrative as if she were right there beside you having a cup of coffee. Way to go, Sheryl Sandberg!)
When I think of the Imposter Syndrome, I recall my professor W. Warner Burke at Columbia University Teacher’s College. On Day 1 of my first course in my Masters in Organizational Psychology, he remarked to a lecture hall of about 70 students that he knew a lot of us wondered if we were up to the challenge of graduate school. A lot of heads nodded thoughtfully, including my own. He then went on to tell us that some 85% of us were probably convinced that we individually had been admitted to Columbia University only by some horrific administrative error. Bursts of nervous laughter rang out. Yup. That was the Imposter Syndrome in full force. He then assured us that we, each and every one of us, belonged there. In one simple act he had taught us something and affirmed our value. What a cool professor!
While the Imposter Syndrome is present in a lot of women, as Sandberg points out, I find that it occurs in an awful lot of men, too. So I offer up this challenge to you, dear reader. Next time you get the sense that your incredibly talented direct report is struggling with their confidence, take a moment to create some space in the conversation. Ask them what’s on their mind. Or make the time to give them that positive feedback you’ve been meaning to get to. Or simply affirm your belief in their capabilities and spend a little extra time walking through the potential pitfalls in a project they’re working on–with them telling you how they will manage the challenges rather than you coming up with the ideas. You know they are capable. Now help them see it, too.