While doing more research on the “Impostor Syndrome,” I came across a super terrific blog post about this syndrome among college students. It was written by Richard Felder, a chemical engineering professor at North Carolina State University, who observed this situation in so many of his students. The syndrome is rampant in the engineering and technical educational world. I remember it well. In my days as a mechanical engineering student at University of Notre Dame, I was drowning in the fear of being uncovered as a fraud. I didn’t know it at the time that it was this Imposter Syndrome, but I was terrified that I didn’t measure up.
This blog post that I discovered was especially intriguing because the author didn’t just explain the impostor syndrome. He actually gave advice to other professors for how to help their students deal with it. As I read through it, I thought “Wow…I wish my professors had done this for me.” But more than that, the advice isn’t limited to just professors. It’s advice that any leader, manager, boss, coach or person in authority can use to mitigate the paralyzing imposter syndrome that is a real problem for the people in their sphere of influence.
His advice is summarized in 4 simple steps, which I am rephrasing to make more universal, beyond the collegiate environment.
1. Acknowledge that the Impostor Syndrome exists. Read about it. Learn about it. Talk about it. Sharing about it and verbalizing it will bring the fear from the dark into the light, and in the light, it is emptied of its paralyzing power.
2. Affirm their abilities got them to where they are now, and their abilities will not magically, suddenly or unexpectedly vanish in the next millisecond.
3. Confirm that one mistake will not wipe out an entire history of success. The security of the free world in not in the balance, so it’s ok to not be perfect. Don’t fear making a mistake. Relax. Breathe. Think.
4. Encourage them to forgive themselves. If they do make a mistake, tell them it’s ok. Rebounding from a mistake doesn’t mean lost of dignity, reputation or confidence. Learn from the mistake. Make changes if necessary. Teach others so they avoid the mistake. Turn the mistake into something that generates power, not something that robs you of it.
These are my paraphrases, but the overall thoughts mirror this professor’s. As a leader or manager, it helps us to know that many people in our sphere of influence feel like impostors. Every time I mention this syndrome, I get a chorus of “Yeah! I feel that too!”
Try it yourself. Mention this to someone, and see what reaction you get. Then, try to use these four points to help them overcome their fear. Better yet, use them on yourself.