Push people, at little, then some more

Imposter Syndrome: How to deal with it in others.

One of the biggest challenges of leading a team of developers is dealing with their fragile egos and the problems that arrive from Imposter Syndrome.

September 25, 2019

If you’re not familiar with imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is:

A psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

The more you grow as a developer, the more this becomes likely as you begin to understand what you don’t know and where your strengths and weaknesses. You fear the flaws will be exposed in some way.

And if you suffer from it, you’re not alone. A recent study suggests 58% of Tech employees suffer from it.

From personal experience, this number seems low. You will likely have someone in your team is experiencing some level of imposter syndrome.

The Danger of External Benchmarks

Imposter Syndrome comes from the process benchmarking yourself against someone else. Comparing how good you think you are, against how good someone else appears to be. The challenge with this is you are usually only comparing the results you see; you rarely have seen the whole process, the mistakes they made along the way, the help they’ve had. You know a lot about yourself, but you’re comparing yourself with something you don’t fully understand.

Identify the Challenge.

If you have a responsible sized, talented, team and you are 100% sure that you don’t have anyone in your team suffering, then you’re probably not communicating with them well enough.

If you have a strong focus on honest, open and regular feedback inside your team, then it will be straightforward to identify places where people are experiencing imposter syndrome. They will tell you. Or they will express similar concerns about not being good enough, or not being as good as X or Y.

To surface these things, you need to consider how you introduce a more open and sharing environment within your team.

Set Sensible Expectations.

If you are pushing your team too hard, they’re always going to be chasing untouchable goals. Then the second they see someone archiving them, it’s going to hurt. If you can’t hit a target and someone seemingly swoops in and take that away from you, it’s only human to assume you’re not as good as that person.

However, at that point, you don’t have any idea of that other persons or teams starting point. So it’s important to set sensible expectations based on a baseline of current capabilities. These expectations apply to both project deliveries and person development.

Setting sensible goals, reviewing them regularly and giving succinct feedback allows an individual to build their understanding of their areas of excellence and their weakness. Allowing them to celebrate the things they’re good at, and have a solid plan for improving the things they not owning. This internal clarity should stop them from looking at others as a bench march.

Get Good at Giving Feedback.

To make sure your team have a good understanding of themselves, you need to make sure you focus on the process of feedback.

Your team won’t trust your feedback if your process sucks. But if you’re able to balance constructive feedback with celebrating success, then you will be able to help your team build a better understanding of their self-worth and the benefits they’re bringing to the team.

Tip: That other person is fantastic, but also shit.

If all else fails, I have a sure-fire (but temporary) tip for dealing with imposter syndrome.

Just remember, you are better than everyone at something, and everyone is better than you at something.

The things that you excel in might not be of use right this second, but it will be in the future.


Phil Bennett

Phil is an engineering manager at Klarna with 20 years experience in the tech industry. He has an empathetic team lead who is always striving to get better at helping others get better. He also has an unhealthy interest in burgers.