Imposter’s Paradox

7 min read

When I was younger, I admired leaders for their positions, company size, and teams. Yet, I couldn’t help but be utterly baffled when they posed what sounded like the simplest of questions.

Let me correct myself here. I actually thought they were asking dumb questions. 

Then, one day, a light bulb went off in my head. Maybe, just maybe, they were so successful in their careers precisely because they never worried about the perception around asking “dumb” questions. 

This was my first encounter with imposter syndrome – the silent killer of curiosity and questions. 

And, it turns out, I wasn’t alone! Approximately 82% of people in the US have experienced imposter syndrome symptoms at work. But what are they? The National Institute of Health defines imposter syndrome as a behavioural health phenomenon where self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments occurs in high-achieving individuals

If you want to learn more about how imposter syndrome affected me later in life, check out my article on how it almost sabotaged my podcast career before it even got started.

So, now that we are armed with this information, and the relief of not being alone is feeling pretty good at the moment, let me ask you a question: How willing are you to embrace curiosity when there’s a fear others might perceive you to be less intelligent than they perceive you to be?

The perceived risk we associate with asking a ‘dumb’ question can often seem too daunting, meaning you might prioritize the appearance of having all the answers, even when you don’t. However, this approach can be detrimental not only in the short term but also in the long run. It can hold back your entire team from effectively addressing complex issues, potentially built upon unchecked assumptions. These assumptions need a curious-minded question to shift everyone’s perspective and drive innovation.

I make no claims on the best way to overcome imposter syndrome, but I will share a few ways I have approached it over the years with myself and the teams I was part of. 

Psychological Safety

“Leading by example isn’t the best way to lead. It’s the only way to lead.” – Vince Lombardi

Do you and your team feel safe to take risks in your organization? 

This concept has been well documented as an underlying principle of high-performing teams and one I would wholeheartedly agree with. If your team does not feel safe in not having the answers or knows there is a real risk of reprisals in your workplace culture, curiosity will die on the vine. 

In my experience, the only way to shift this is to lead by example. To do this, you must encourage and support people to open up and share what they don’t know as easily and freely as sharing what they do. I have never seen a quick fix to this, as anything that has trust at its foundation takes time to develop.

If you want to brush up on psychological safety and how to foster it within your team’s culture, check out this helpful article from Google’s re:Work initiative

Emotional Intelligence

Our ability to understand, navigate, and regulate our own emotions and the emotions of the people around us is a life skill that has never been more important in the workplace than now. Emotionally reckless leaders run the risk of losing team members at a higher rate and delivering lower performance across the board. 

The best place to start with emotional intelligence is not with the people around you but with yourself. The ability to recognize when self-doubt or negative self-talk starts to kick in is a flag to stop, take a breath, and push through with a curious question or the admission that you don’t have the answer and you are open to what your team has to say. By recognizing the patterns that may be sabotaging your curiosity, you can begin the journey of coming to terms with it and moving past the self-sabotage. I am not trying to make it sound easy (because it’s not) I am saying it is worth it, and with a little practice and self-trust, you will be well on your way.

To learn more about the six intelligences all leaders need – including emotional intelligence and psychological safety – please check out these insightful podcast episodes with Jennie Gilbert, an expert facilitator with a depth of knowledge in emotional intelligence.

Practice Makes Better 

(Perfect can be a destructive concept, so let’s focus on being better.)

Practice to become better is such a simple concept that can be so easily overlooked. To clarify what I mean is to practice not knowing and asking questions in a low-risk setting. The big project at work in front of the entire company is likely a less-than-ideal moment to admit you don’t have the answers. Hey, I am idealistic, I am not completely out of touch! 

When developing any new skill set, starting with small steps and gradually progressing is essential. Consider this: if you were to rate a situation as an 8/10 on your personal stress scale, it might not be the best moment to embrace the ‘not knowing’ approach, as the pressure might make it challenging to break old habits.

On the other hand, think about a one-on-one conversation with a colleague. In the past, you might have been quick to provide answers, but what if you simply responded with, ‘That’s an excellent question; I’m not sure. What are your thoughts on it?’

You might think this approach sounds overly simplistic, almost like junior-level learning. However, I’ve encountered individuals, even in senior roles, who either haven’t taken the time to learn or have never been taught how to communicate in a way that allows humility to be present in the room. In this context, it’s important to note that humility and curiosity are closely intertwined.

Remember the high-level leaders I spoke about earlier, the ones with the seemingly “dumb” questions? Well, the joke was on me the entire time. While I worried about looking smart when I actually wasn’t, they continued to not care one bit what I thought about their questions and they went on learning and growing. 

It is never too late to give curiosity some runway, and maybe,  just maybe, you may learn something new that changes your path.

Stay Curious!

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