S&T Live Recap: How Leaders and Employees Can Overcome Imposter Syndrome

In recent conversations with PRSA and PRSSA members from around the country, PRSA CEO Linda Thomas Brooks has repeatedly heard people ask about imposter syndrome — the fear of not deserving your success and being revealed as a fraud.

Similar questions keep popping up: “How do I know if I have imposter syndrome? What do I do about it? How do I go into my first job if I have imposter syndrome?”

She tells the students and professionals: “Anytime you come in new to a role, we realize that you don’t know everything. That’s part of getting a first job, of doing something for the first time. I don’t know if you would call that ‘imposter syndrome,’ or just being a ‘newbie.’”

Thomas Brooks was the guest on the June 15 episode of S&T Live, PRSA’s monthly livestream on LinkedIn that takes readers deeper into the stories they find in Strategies & Tactics. Thomas Brooks provided insights for overcoming imposter syndrome in the June-July issue of the publication.

Fear of the unknown

Imposter syndrome is not a pathology, but reflects “a fear of the unknown when doing something for the first time,” she said. If there’s an upside to such feelings, it “might be that you work hard to prepare. You spend time doing research, asking questions.”

If you’re in a new situation and somebody asks you a question that you’re not prepared to answer, then “the best thing to do is to say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but can you give me a couple of days to research it and then come back to you with some input?’” In a professional setting, such a response will earn respect, she said.

Be clear and transparent when you don’t know something, she advised. “Don’t feel that you have to have all the answers. And certainly don’t make answers up.”

To boost your knowledge and your confidence, listen, use your research skills, and connect the dots between the different things you hear in meetings or during work projects, she said. “And then bring that collaboration of information to each project that you do.”

John Elsasser, editor-in-chief of the award-winning Strategies & Tactics and host of S&T Live, referenced a recent article in Harvard Business Review, which said that people can also experience feelings of imposter syndrome later in their careers — after a promotion, for example.

Again, “research, connect the dots, pull things from different areas of your expertise,” Thomas Brooks said. Of course, “If you’re the boss, sitting in a big room and telling people you don’t know anything might not be the best professional move.”

But it’s still OK for the boss to say, “I wasn’t prepared to discuss that particular aspect of this topic today,” she said. “Let me gather some more information so that we can have a fully realized group conversation about it.”

More often than not, feelings of imposter syndrome resolve themselves. But as a boss, you might ask the employee: “What about this situation makes you nervous?” Provide meaningful input, not platitudes. Early coaching, support and mentorship will help young professionals grow.

“It’s OK to be scared,” she said. “But don’t let fear stop you — ever.”

You can watch the playback of the conversation on LinkedIn.

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