Imposter syndrome and the tech industry: it’s real. What is it about innovation work, and work culture, that cultivates this mental health phenomenon?
According to research cited in Tech Republic, 70% of people, in general, feel imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. In an informal survey of over 10,000 tech workers, the social media site Blind found 58% of those surveyed experience “imposter syndrome.” They felt unprepared for their roles and anxious about being “outed” as frauds.
It’s not only a good idea to take a deeper dive into this unique species of anxiety, and its vulnerabilities. It’s equally as important to present solutions tech companies can put in place to support and retain the best people who make the biggest impact.
Imposter Syndrome and Self-Doubt Aren’t Synonymous
Doubt and self-doubt. Humans are great at both. But not all self-doubt or work-related anxiety morphs into imposter syndrome. The American Psychological Association (APA) characterizes imposter syndrome as “an all-encompassing fear of being found out to not have what it takes.”
A Brief History in Dubiousness
In 1978, psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, concluded the imposter phenomenon creates a pervasive sense of under-qualification, or a lack of achievement due to luck. And they also initially thought imposter syndrome was only experienced by women.
Fortunately the mental health crowd revised their take on the concept, recognizing that A. The concept of luck in this context is super-superficial, and B. ANYONE can experience this phenomenon, regardless of biology and demographic. However the susceptibility of “outsider” groups (e.g. women in STEM or LGBTQ individuals) does hold some water.
Why Does Imposter Syndrome Thrive in Tech Environments?
In general, imposter syndrome feeds off of new situations, such as taking on a new role, managing a new process or more people, changing your career path or course of study in school, etc. It can happen anywhere, and to anyone. But, without question, it’s a white hot topic (and, quite frankly, overused/misused term) among tech professionals.
1. Many Tech Professionals Err on the Side of Perfectionism
“The impostor phenomenon and perfectionism often go hand in hand. So-called impostors think every task they tackle has to be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help.” – AMA
One reason perfectionism runs rampant in tech is its ever-flowing fountain of youth. The age of tech workers is, on average, five years younger than other industries. Entire companies made up of people under 30? Throw a rock in Austin, Silicon Valley, Boston, or any other tech hub, and you’ll hit one.
This population in particular is subject to anxiety stemming from perfectionism. Harvard Business Review recently published research indicating the rise of the perfectionist personality trait among American, British, and Canadian young people. “Increasingly, young people hold irrational ideals for themselves, ideals that manifest in unrealistic expectations for academic and professional achievement…and what they should own.”
Achievement Without Bounds
In addition to the younger population, the tech industry appeals to intelligent high-achievers of all ages. And where there are high-achievers, there are over-achievers. The very nature of software/hardware design and development hinges on perfection and attention to detail. Broken code haunts dreams, and poor app ratings rain on many parades. And the developer POV is just one dimension. Having what it takes to design, market, plan, and sell tech products and services creates some pretty high standards for a wide variety of professionals in the field.
Tech Companies can Check Perfectionism with Empathy
Because so many people in tech share these traits, there should be more encouragement to discuss the challenges and barriers sky-high expectations present. Holistic empathy practices promote culture, retention, and productivity. Managers and peers alike need to take time, regularly and as needed, to get individual and team barometric readings. Pay attention to demeanor, follow up after tough conversations, and proactively offer work-in-progress checkpoints to can help prevent mis-alignment, feelings of inferiority, and toxic slow boils. It’s not just about managing, it’s about sharing and listening.
2. Career Paths in Tech are Fluid
One of the truly fascinating and exciting aspects of tech is the variety of career paths–and how they happen. Academia certainly can’t keep up with technology. Many of corporate America’s archaic rules don’t apply. There will always be more nature than nurture in tech. The pace at which tech happens is largely why businesses need innovation guidance. There are more academic and training tech programs in the works, but many tech professionals (especially leaders) are, and will often be, born innovators.
Making your own rules to move forward at ludicrous speed is thrilling, but it comes with a price. When everything is constantly reinventing and pushing the boundaries of possible, it creates a petri dish environment for imposter syndrome.
Talent is the Double-Edged Sword
Take this statement from a software engineer: “I did two semesters of computer science in school. And while technically I have an engineering degree, it’s in music, not ‘real engineering’.”
In the end, does it matter? Not unless you let it.
A motivated person who asks the right questions of the world and of his/herself can create a career in tech using their own devices (literally). Much to the confusion (and annoyance) of older generations, degrees and formal training aren’t always required–or very useful. Many tech workers are at their best when learning on-the-go. This approach allows them to build skills, make mistakes, and make the right bets on emerging technologies.
Some people thrive on this lifestyle (it truly is a lifestyle), but others stumble, personally, as their professional progress becomes more real. This is the population that needs more focus, direction, and feedback when they manage people or processes. They need a means to validate.
Focus on Compliment, not Comparison
An undefined learning curve and unpredictable ascent can trigger anxiety. It’s all too easy to assume your team (or client) knows more than you do. Funny thing is that, in the best cases, they do. Building, being on, or serving a strong team is about balance and collaboration, not hierarchy and submission. But that sort of recognition and approach takes active demonstration by all levels of leadership.
Additionally, sometimes the most talented players aren’t the best coaches (a la Magic Johnson or Wayne Gretzsky). Tech leaders need as much help as anyone else recognizing the gaps they need to fill with resources who are more in-tune with group dynamics, functional management, and motivation. This recognition has to build up, from middle management and their teams who are doing the work and culturally active.
3. Tech Company Cultures Ebb and Flow
Results on imposter syndrome surveys vary drastically. The 58% figure mentioned in the first paragraph is an average. 72% of Expedia respondents to that survey reported experiencing imposter syndrome some of the time, while 45% of Apple workers said the same thing.
While Apple’s figures are still relatively high, it’s worth considering company culture as a determining factor. Many intangibles contribute to creating a supportive company culture, but one big factor is likely to be the sense of control that an employee feels.
Insecurity in a Shifting Market
Emerging technology gives rise to a turbulent marketplace: Acquisitions, attrition, mergers, platform misfires, etc. The market isn’t shaken by these things–but PEOPLE sure are. It’s easy to look at the skills among your peers and weigh your value. Tech professionals also frequently change companies and roles. Each of these leaps requires the ability to sell your qualifications to endless sets of people.
Prioritize Transparency and Feedback
Feedback is key in mitigating imposter syndrome because the more information employees have regarding their performance, the faster they can expand upon what’s working and adjust what’s not. Being open and clear goes way beyond breaking down your financial outlook (although that is crucial).
If employees feel comfortable sharing ideas and asking questions, it leaves less room for ambiguity, doubt, and wondering if they have what it takes. Having a clear vision to support with specific activities also helps team members understand the how and the why of their work.
Imposter Syndrome: There’s an Upside
There’s no fail-safe method for preventing imposter syndrome. While it’s good to keep in mind which external factors make tech workers more susceptible, it’s equally important to recognize the potential positive result: personal innovation through adaptability intelligence.
Innovations arise from people who can learn to do or see things differently. Awareness that you have a lot to learn and that you have to evolve alongside the market and the tech makes for a mature employee. Promoting this awareness is a trait of a strong tech company culture.
Imposter syndrome becomes tangible when people enable behaviors that create uncertain, fearful environments. Retention of good people directly impacts your bottomline. Ask questions. Make positive examples of your thinkers who make things happen. And show your people that who they are and what they offer, right now, is your company’s biggest asset.