Imposter Syndrome

As I’ve discussed in past posts, I am very interested in cognitive biases.  I think they are incredibly useful to study as we all muddle along trying to make improvements and help.  It’s somehow reassuring to know that our brains are actually hard-wired to make these simple mistakes.  It’s one of those acknowledgments that help me get through the day with a little less guilt.  After all, it’s awfully tough to do great things and help others be great when there are so many ways we can screw up.  Its reassuring to know some of it is hard wired.

One important bias to be aware of as a leader is slightly different than the others.  Most of the biases tend to convince our brains that we must be right, or that our logic is flawless, or that our assumptions always seem to be supported by evidence (at least the evidence we look for always supports our beliefs!)  Well, this next bias has to do with our negative feelings about our own credibility and even our self worth.  It’s called Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

I believe that new Technology Leaders (or even tech leaders such as developer leads or architects) are often deeply impacted by this problem.  And for some obvious reasons.

To start, most tend to be technologists who were formerly working on highly functioning teams before they were asked to be a manager.  On these teams, everyone has a perspective and something to offer.  It seems like all of your peers are talented, deeply thoughtful, and are engaged.  We’ve all been taught that there is no (or should be) no place for bravado or ego.  In this way, technologists tend to let the best ideas win, no matter where they come from.  To many, it seems odd to make someone “the leader”.

These folks (often) are working inside of domains with incredible ambiguity and complexity.  There are no right answers, only great execution and reflection.  The problems are tough, and often take a group effort to determine the next most reasonable path.

And this is where those in the technical field make a fatal mistake.  They assume, based on how collaborative the work is, and how critical it is to bring others viewpoints into the dialog, that there is little use for a leader.  So when they become the leader, they constantly second guess themselves.  “How could these people need me?  They are smarter than me!”  Or conversely, “I better be ready to solve everyone’s issues or I’m not adding any value.”

This attitude quickly leads new leaders to take on too much, become out of control, over committed, and ultimately feel a deep sense of guilt.

Furthermore, the technology industry works incredibly hard to sell expertise and guarantees.  Its easy to hear sharp dressed sales people make the work sound easy.  Wild amounts of misunderstanding and fear are wrapped up, packaged, smoothed out, and sold as “obvious”.  Its also easy to hear a high level leader put their foot down on a direction (that we know to be inadequate or costly), and just get in line.

Well, its taken me some time to gain enough confidence to call BS, but new leaders…they have almost no chance to persuade their partners about the realities of our work (knowledge work).  Or… they have little chance to teach real options to the business to work differently and be effective.  Nope, Impostor Syndrome and fear take over and implore new leaders to explain it all away.  “If they are making millions, they must know something…and they seem so confident!”

In my experience, every stage of the journey is scary.  It took quite a long time for me to speak up, and acknowledge how important the leadership role is in building great technical teams.  It took a long time to realize that those who pedal guarantees, high levels of control, and “polish” are mostly full of shit, and are nothing more than charlatans and snake oil salesmen (or scared themselves).

Now its time to do something to help leaders find their voice.

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