Imposter syndrome–the feeling that “I’m not qualified for this job and someday people will find out”–has been associated with impaired job performance, reduced job satisfaction, and employee burnout. For managers trying to support team members who may be struggling with imposter syndrome, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation worse in two ways.
First, imposter syndrome can be even more intense in a remote environment. Reduced personal contact drives us to retreat into our own heads. And without the benefit of body language and other nuanced communication from others that provides immediate feedback, our self-limiting thoughts tend to take over. That can lead to confirmation bias, a slippery slope in which we seek evidence to prove our negative beliefs.
The prevalence of remote work has also made it more difficult for managers to help their teams identify and combat imposter syndrome when it surfaces. According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70% of the population has suffered from imposter syndrome at least once. This data feels more real when we learn that the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, Tom Hanks, and Serena Williams have experienced it too. But I can attest from personal experience that imposter syndrome can be managed and even harnessed to motivate growth.
I joined Norwest Venture Partners in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, following 20+ years as a technology marketer. I had to establish relationships, learn processes, and grasp unfamiliar terminology without the benefit of the informal interactions such as watercooler chats and impromptu lunches that typically occur in an office. Over time, I learned to recognize and deal with the signs of imposter syndrome in myself.
With more than 50% of job-holders now working remotely at least one day a week, the best managers are taking proactive steps to prevent imposter syndrome from overwhelming dispersed team members.
These are my go-to strategies for curbing imposter syndrome with a remote workforce.
Share your story
Proactively share your own experiences with imposter syndrome to assure employees that they are not alone. A little vulnerability goes a long way in putting people at ease. Reinforce how common imposter syndrome is and share any techniques you have used to address feelings of self-doubt when they arise.
Stay attuned to interpersonal dynamics
Be alert to signals of imposter syndrome, such as self-deprecating remarks, lower levels of input, and reluctance to express a point of view during video calls, especially those that involve multiple people. Take note if a team member exhibits these behaviors and schedule a “no-agenda” check-in to see how they’re feeling.
Urge employees to get out and interact in person with their colleagues and/or extended network. Have a working lunch, schedule a mutual day in the office, or better yet, meet up for a walk. A landmark Stanford study found that walking boosts creative inspiration by up to 60%.
Ask questions mindfully
Be sensitive to how you ask questions, make comments, and conduct progress checks. These interactions are often a major contributor to imposter syndrome if a manager’s comments are perceived as critical or challenging. It’s easy to assume the worst, especially in written communication. In fact, 91% of office workers say that their colleagues have misinterpreted their digital messages. Clear, kind communication can help someone dealing with imposter syndrome feel more confident and comfortable.
Give specific positive feedback
Reinforce your positive view of team members and their work and be specific. One easy behavior shift that I find is well received is to replace “nice work” and “good job” with “I like how you did X,” or “I think your comment about Y was so on-point.” That way, your team understands exactly what you appreciated about their work and they can build on their progress in the future. Another tried and true approach to building confidence: “I was thinking of doing X, but you convinced me that we should do Y.”
Encourage stepping outside comfort zones
Create a safe environment that motivates employees to get out of their comfort zone and try something new. These are the times when we experience the greatest growth in both skills and self-confidence. Assure employees that you have their back when they venture into unfamiliar territory. It’s better to “fail” while daring greatly than to sit on the sidelines with complacency.
Support professional development
Develop goals that encourage employees to increase their knowledge and expand their skills by taking classes (online or in-person) and attending professional events. I find that conferences are a great place to calibrate your knowledge compared to peers. If I see that others are at the same level of expertise or that I’m already implementing a lot of the practices being presented, it helps curb my imposter syndrome.
Remote work is here to stay, and managers who adapt their style to provide extra emotional support to employees will win big with a happier, more engaged workforce. It just requires heightened sensitivity to the perils of isolation; open displays of empathy and support; plenty of communication; and targeted outreach.
Lisa Ames is the CMO, Principal, and Operating Executive at Norwest Venture Partners.