What is imposter syndrome and how can you combat it?

a man nervous and experiencing imposter syndrome while working on a laptop

Hear how imposter syndrome affects people and what you can do to support your staff who experience it

Imposter syndrome can be an unwelcome hurdle in anyone’s career. The world of tech is fast-moving and ever-changing, meaning doubts about your ability can creep into even the most tenured member of staff. It’s a significant problem for women – a recent survey revealed that 75% of female executives have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers.

We spoke with Alys Winter, our Academy Talent Manager, to dive deeper into the topic of imposter syndrome and explore how both managers and organisations can combat it.

Alys, thank you for your time.

Thank you. It’s good to be talking about such an important subject, especially with us working with so many young people that come through the Academy program.

So right off the bat, I want to ask you: what do we actually mean by the term ‘imposter syndrome’? How does it feel and how can it affect people?

For me, imposter syndrome is feeling like you don’t deserve to be where you are, whether that be in a job role, in education or even in a social context. And I think it can really prevent people from taking the opportunities and stepping outside of their comfort zone. Especially if someone’s had that feeling before, you know, feeling like they don’t belong or that they’re not cut out for something. I think it can really be preventative in taking new steps into new experiences.

I think a bit of a misconception is that people think it’s something that you’re going to experience or you might feel like an imposter in a new role. But I think the sad thing is that not even experience in some instances can help diminish that. Sometimes it is something that can stick around, especially in the context of job roles, and it’s almost like that thing of looking at a job spec and thinking ‘well, I’ve got proven experience in five of those ten things and feeling like well I’m overselling myself if I even apply for this because I don’t have that experience’.

It can really hold people back and prevent people from developing. It’s that mental blocker of feeling like you don’t belong or you don’t deserve to be where you are.

And why do you think imposter syndrome is so prevalent in the tech industry specifically? Is it something about the range of technology, languages, or applications that can overwhelm people? How is it such a large problem specifically in IT?

I think the scale of the tech industry – the ever-changing nature, how much there is to learn and adapt to consistently – can be a scary concept but I think generally the tech industry is one with a lot of misconceptions. I think it’s stereotypically seen as a heavily white male-dominated industry where you work alone and you may work the basement of your house with not a huge amount of contact with other people and imposter syndrome can occur if you don’t look or sound or have the same background as people that you’re working alongside.

Because there really is that image of tech – which I guess at Ten10 we’re doing what we can to try and change – and the role models that have stereotypically been there and historically been there have been white males. So imposter syndrome can be absolutely huge in people that don’t look, don’t sound, and don’t behave like a white male.

Women in tech is a huge thing for us at Ten10 and imposter syndrome within the population of women that we have is something that I see. We train and do different things internally to try and help with that as much as we possibly can. For me, that’s why imposter syndrome is huge in tech: because it’s a huge, ever-changing industry, it’s vast but the stereotypical image of what a tech person looks like is set in history by something that’s probably not very reflective of where it is today. But that’s what sticks in people’s minds and that’s what makes people think ‘I don’t look like that, that’s not me, and maybe I can’t do it.’

Very true. Just speaking with some of the people who’ve come through the Academy, they’ve said similar things. And no doubt with everyone coming through the Academy touching base with you at some point, they’ll have said the same thing to you: that not seeing people on a regular basis can hold them back from taking that step. So, how can managers who are listening support their staff that may be experiencing and feeling imposter syndrome right now?

I think reassurance and feedback are key things. I think you can get really stuck in the way that you see and perceive what you’re doing day-to-day and how that’s going. When things are so busy, as they can often be in day-to-day work, it’s quite easy for managers to pull things up that need tweaking or changing slightly. But I think really praising the positives, really calling out when people are stepping up massively, and taking things in their stride, and [saying] ‘you can do this and you might doubt that you can’t, you might think that it’s new or it’s a big step but you’re here because you deserve to be. I’m giving you the opportunity because you can do it.’ And I think that’s really important and something that managers could take that time to do and it would be hugely beneficial.

And then if we step away from the individual manager role and we look at a company from a broader perspective, what steps do you think companies can take to create that supportive and inclusive environment that will ideally stop imposter syndrome from happening before it even affects anyone?

I think there’s a lot of different ways and obviously it’s such a huge thing to tackle but an open culture is really important. Like even doing things like these podcasts and normalising imposter syndrome – the fact that so many people at various stages in their career will have felt like that. They didn’t belong in the room. They didn’t belong in the meeting, that kind of thing. And I think it’s something that, across all levels of the business, people have experienced.

Having this podcast, for example, I personally would love to hear senior people within the business come and share times that they might have felt like that and how they’ve overcome it. There might be people within organisations that seem like they’re always been super confident and they’ve always felt like they belong, but hearing that perception on it, I think can be really interesting.

I know saying having an open culture in a company is a huge thing to tackle but I think role models are so important. As I said before, I think imposter syndrome occurs more if you’re not working with people or you don’t see people succeed that look like you. And I think creating role models to support people and maybe even partnering people up on that basis:

  • someone that’s come from the same educational background
  • someone who’s had a previous career journey that’s similar to yours
  • someone who identifies in the same way that you do

To show you that it’s possible, ‘here’s what I’ve done, here are the steps that I’ve taken’. Having that reassurance and people to guide and mentor you is crucial.

One thing that we’ve implemented in the Academy is a buddy program, so that people who are a little bit more experienced and a little bit further along that journey can partner themselves up with someone who matches with their expectations and feels like them. People can share facts about themselves and give someone a pretty good picture of who they are and what their journey’s been like just to have that reassurance.

That’s terrific and I think something that I’ve learned over the past two or three years is the value of people having someone close to them who’s from a very similar background. Having those same experiences and appreciating that they’ll feel relaxed enough and confident enough to ask questions that you simply aren’t going to ask other people. If you sit down with your manager on a regular basis or if you sit down with a member of HR on regular basis, you’re obviously going to make some progress but that ability to connect with someone who’s from the same background and has the same experiences – you just bring out another side of them, don’t you?

Yes. It’s that safe space to talk and share and get that guidance. Absolutely.

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