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End Imposter Syndrome in Your Workplace

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Skizzomat/Marie Emmermann

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In February 2021, we offered one simple idea: Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome. Since then, fixing the places where women work instead of fixing women at work has become a rallying cry for women of all races across the world. More than that, the pushback against imposter syndrome continues the push toward sustainable, systemic solutions to ensure work is a place where our most underrepresented employees can belong and thrive.

Since the article went viral, we’ve been asked frequently: If we’re not supposed to diagnose women with imposter syndrome, then what? How can workplace leaders step up to create an environment where imposter syndrome doesn’t exist?

Here’s how managers can make it happen.

Pivot the language employees use to describe themselves

We must take seriously the language we use to describe our experiences at work. If members of your team describe having feelings of imposter syndrome, or even name it directly, listen intently. Honest conversations about what it takes to “win” in your company culture can help your team members adjust inaccurate self-assessments. Share your own experiences of imposter syndrome and highlight the conditions that triggered that response, such as chronic underrepresentation, uncredited work efforts, and microaggressions. Likewise, probe your team members more about their experiences at the company that led them to discount their success or feel like they don’t belong.

While supporting your team members individually is important, take a “both/and” approach to meeting their unique needs while also making the organizational shifts required to address imposter syndrome at its true source. “It’s easier to set up a professional development program, put money into training, or to even pay for a coach or a mentor rather than think about the values, ideologies, and subsequent practices amidst the severe underrepresentation in organizations that create imposter syndrome as a mainstay,” says Dr. Kecia Thomas, an industrial organizational psychologist and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Developing structural solutions that address imposter syndrome triggers sets you on a path to helping make sustainable, systemic changes that can support others who share these experiences.

Be honest about the impact of bias

We must be honest about our professional landscape as it stands today: There are multiple models of leadership and confidence for men, but not many for women of color. Male leadership models range from raging tempers (former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer) to soft-spoken (Google’s Sundar Pichai), from sharp suits (French president Emmanuel Macron) to hoodies and jeans (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg). This means that we give far more latitude to a number of ways men show up and appear in the workplace. Leaders with underrepresented identities then find themselves walking the tightrope bias and approach their self-expression and leadership styles with strategic intention. Discrimination and bias shape our expectations of how leaders should look, sound, and act, making an invisible impact on seemingly neutral terms like “professionalism.”

“What does executive presence even mean? When 46 out of 46 American presidents have been male and straight and 45 have been white, what do we automatically think when we say ‘presidential’?” questions Siri Chilazi, research fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School. A history of “think male, think leader” has been a pervasive barrier to accepting that women are perfectly capable leaders even if they express self-doubt or hesitation. We must widen definitions of leadership and the words we use to describe leaders.

“The Eurocentric model of professionalism is a cage for everyone, most tightly constraining Black women,” says Dr. Tina Opie, associate professor of management at Babson College and founder of Opie Consulting Group. Dr. Opie has faced colleagues’ bias for wearing her natural hair in the workplace. Jodi-Ann, who’s hosted webinars on navigating racial microaggressions for thousands of professional women of color, noted that the most common racial microaggressions among participants were about hair-touching or comments about their hair. Hair is a main signifier of racial difference in the United States and still stands in many states as legal grounds for workplace discrimination — a cause The CROWN Act is working to address.

The onus is on managers with employees from underrepresented backgrounds to spend time understanding that the frameworks determining these standards are already rigged against women, especially women of color, and likely reinforce self-doubt and unbelonging. Understanding the unique challenges faced by people who are different from them builds the managers’ capacity to fully grow in their roles. Managers cannot be considered effective if they can only manage employees who are like them.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Ruchika Tulshyan is the author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace and the founder of Candour, an inclusion strategy firm. She is writing a forthcoming book about women of color at work.
Jodi-Ann Burey is a sought-after speaker and writer who works at the intersections of race, culture, and health equity. She is the creator and host of Black Cancer, a podcast about the lives of people of color through their cancer journeys. Her TEDx talk, “Why You Should Not Bring Your Authentic Self to Work,” embodies her disruption of traditional narratives about racism at work.


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