Sincerely, Leaders of Color: Dear imposter syndrome…
Managers and leaders have a role in combating imposter syndrome
About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column.
There are lots of working definitions for imposter syndrome, but I always describe it as the little voice in the back of your mind that is constantly whispering: “You don’t belong here, you aren’t good enough for this job/role/company/etc.”
Some people describe imposter syndrome as never feeling good enough or always feeling like a fraud — worried that their colleagues will somehow learn they aren’t qualified or are an “imposter” and don’t belong in a high-caliber work environment.
No matter how you describe it, the truth is imposter syndrome can affect anyone, though many might feel it is exclusive to people of color or women. I’ve met women of color who have never suffered a crisis of confidence in their professional lives, and I’ve met white men who never feel like they’ve truly earned their seat at the table. However, it can’t be ignored that women and people of color are more likely to face imposter syndrome in the workplace, due to systemic discrimination and an infrastructure with bias built into its DNA.
So what does this all mean for leaders, anyway?
Mostly, it means that we can do better.
It means when we’re writing job descriptions, we should be thinking about how folks with imposter syndrome might perceive some of our language choices. Are you looking for someone who already thinks they are an extraordinary writer and reporter? Or are you searching for candidates who want to continue growing their skills, regardless of level? I share some specific language changes you can make in the next section.
It means when we onboard folks, we can do a better job of checking in with them after the first few days, weeks, and months, and ensuring they’ve been set up for success in their new role.
It means that when we give feedback to folks who already think they don’t belong in their job, we can be more empathetic and strategic. We can focus on how to get to success with a struggling staffer, instead of trying to break that person down into submission.
Your burning questions
Knowing that many BIPOC candidates will face imposter syndrome, how best can employers and managers identify these folks and help them be more likely to apply for great jobs?
So the first question you really want to be asking is: “What does imposter syndrome look like?”
And the answer to that is complicated, because imposter syndrome manifests in lots of ways for different folks. But, here are a few things you could be on the lookout for as leaders and managers:
- They may not take compliments well or at all
- They might make jokes or laugh off positive feedback
- They may be hesitant to take ownership of their ideas
- They are unlikely to correct someone else who is taking credit for their work
- They may resist being encouraged to take larger responsibilities or roles with additional facetime
- They may fixate on being a high performer and getting things exactly right
Overall, many let the perfect sometimes get in the way of the good.
The best thing you can do to help your staff who may face imposter syndrome is talk to them and be supportive. Talk about goals and achievements during your 1:1 meetings (which you, as a great manager should already be having on the regular!). Give them positive and negative feedback strategically, but regularly.
Make sure your staff knows which of their skills you perceive as their strengths and which areas you perceive as growth areas. The most successful employee/manager relationships are grounded in finding agreement and alignment around skills, potential, goals, and direction of growth.
You may not be able to fully convince this person that they belong in their role, that they’ve earned their seat at the table, but you can take action to help create evidence of their achievements and progress (which means they’ll have more in their arsenal when it comes to annual review time):
- Include a shoutout for them in the all-staff meeting
- Submit their work for prestigious awards
- Help them build their network of experts and mentors in their focus area
- Submit their work as a case study to an industry publication
- Help them build their profile by encouraging them to speak at conferences or write publicly about their work
So, what about job postings and hiring? If we’re agreeing that a percentage of candidates, mostly women and BIPOC, may self-eliminate before even applying, how can we solve this problem?
A few easy things:
- Change your “requirements” or “qualifications” checklist to a more narrative-driven “About You, the candidate” section
- Remove educational barriers, such as requiring a high school or college degree
- Include language that reminds the applicant that there is no singular, perfect candidate for this role
- E.g.: “This beat didn’t even exist in tech journalism until recently. So if you think you don’t have the right expertise, we’ve got news for you: nobody does.”
- E.g.: “No candidate will have every desired qualification. If you think you might have experience that would serve you in this job, let us know by applying.”
- Explicitly find and encourage folks from non-traditional backgrounds and with unique professional experiences to apply.
- Be open to speaking with interested candidates, especially those from historically marginalized backgrounds and list how folks can get in touch (office hours link, email address, Twitter, etc)
- Include examples of what the successful work product might look like for this role
- E.g.: “Here’s 3-5 examples of the kinds of stories we hope this reporter might tell”
- E.g.: “Expect to have your hands involved with [2-3 examples]” of recent projects published or built by this team
Fellow leaders, what are your best tips for managing staff facing imposter syndrome? Tell us what you’re thinking, and we may include your comments in our next column.
Emma Carew Grovum
P. Kim Bui
Leaders of Color
Emma Carew Grovum
Emma Carew Grovum is a journalist and technologist in New York City. As the founder of Kimbap Media, she coaches and consults with newsrooms on key strategy areas including leadership, product thinking, and diversity/equity/inclusion.