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Don't let impostor syndrome hold you back

Lots of accomplished people feel like frauds -- and that can get in the way of success. An IT pro shares his experience and the tools to move on.

When Major Hayden started at cloud services company Rackspace, he was an "entry-level Linux tech," who would answer help desk tickets and resolve issues. Then after a series of moves into middle management and software development and back again, he was promoted to the business side of the house, in the corporate security department.

"I felt like a fish out of water," said Hayden, now principal architect at Rackspace, at the recent OpenStack Summit in Boston. He went from being a T-shirt wearing programmer to "button shirts, Harvard Business Review and chairing meetings."

Hayden had what's called impostor syndrome ­­-- despite having the skills to do his job, he was dogged by the overwhelming feeling that he was a fake.

Hayden is in good company. An estimated 70% of people will have at least one bout of impostor syndrome in their lives, according to the Behavioral Science Research Institute. People the likes of authors John Steinbeck and Maya Angelou, actor Tom Hanks and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg all have felt like frauds at times.

If they can come down with impostor syndrome, chances are good that CIOs can, too. Especially as they mingle with business folks to push ever-critical digital business initiatives, IT leaders need to recognize this personality trait in themselves -- and those they direct -- and work to counter its effects. If not, they risk letting impostor syndrome impede the path to career success, discouraging people from pushing their limits -- and, as Hayden stressed in his talk, driving "diversity away from your community."

Hayden was talking to an audience of software developers and system admins who work on OpenStack, submitting code and issuing tweaks to the open source software platform. But impostor syndrome can affect people "no matter your age, your race, your gender, where you come from, what you work on, your experience level in anything."

Major Hayden, principal architect at Rackspace
Major Hayden, principal architect at Rackspace, discusses how to handle impostor syndrome at the recent OpenStack Summit in Boston.

'A pain in my butt'

The Behavioral Science Research Institute cites several researchers' definitions of impostor syndrome, the simplest being an "internal experience of intellectual phoniness." People who have it experience fears that hinder "a person's ability to accept and enjoy their abilities and achievements, and have a negative impact on their psychological well-being."

Hayden's inability to adjust to his new business-level role caught the attention of his boss, who talked to him about two types of people: those with high confidence and low skills -- "they just feel like they can do everything, but they usually make a mess," Hayden said -- and highly competent people who doubt themselves. Hayden, of course, was in the latter group. To his boss, both types were "a pain in my butt."

"He wanted people whose confidence and competence were matched up, because it gave him an idea of exactly the team he had built, who he needed to hire for, if he needed to move people, transfer them, promote them," Hayden said. "Without that, he was lost."

Virtuous cycle

Hayden has a process for making sure your degrees of confidence and competence are aligned: the OODA loop. It's a decision-making process -- observe, orient, decide and act -- originally developed for Air Force fighter pilots in the Korean War who needed to react quickly to signs of danger, such as an approaching enemy aircraft. The approach now has applications beyond military strategy, including business and litigation.

Hayden gave an example of using the loop to combat an episode of impostor syndrome, starting with observing, or gathering data about a situation. During a meeting in which you need to make an important pitch, watch the expressions of people you trust -- people you know you can count on for honest feedback.

"If the response comes back where someone says, 'This is great. We should have been doing this a year ago,'" Hayden said, "and you went into that meeting with the feeling like, 'Aw, man, this is a terrible idea; no one's going to like it,' then make that observation."

Next, orient yourself, or determine what the situation means to you and what you can do about it; decide on the behavior you want to change; and finally, commit to a plan of action.

Hayden cycles through the loop when he has a work proposal he's not sure about: He goes to a friend, explains a challenge he's facing and his solution to determine whether he's on the right track. If he has to, he makes tweaks before he presents the plan to others. That helps him "improve the way I look at myself and get my confidence and competence in line."

Looping others in

The OODA loop can also be used to help others do the same, Hayden said, and it doesn't take much. Just notice when a capable co-worker doesn't deliver the way you know he or she could and then say something encouraging. Or better yet, do something.

For example, if someone on your team has expertise in a certain area and says nothing during a meeting when the topic comes up, take action and schedule time for that person to speak at a later date. Hayden did so in such a situation with a shy OpenStack developer.

"And it turns out that was enough," he said. "It was really just getting that person in there and saying, 'You've got the floor. We invited you here; we love what you want to talk about. Come on down.'"

Reaching out to the left-brained

Hayden's message was helpful to Kris Murphy, a software engineer at IBM. The company sells a distribution of OpenStack, and Murphy is one of thousands who contribute code to the project.

She recently developed a patch to the Linux kernel -- the Linux operating system is a popular one for OpenStack -- and "was scared to death" to submit it to community peers for review.

"Because I was like, 'Oh, they're going to hate it, and they're going to reject me,'" she said. "And it was all positive, and they're like, 'This is great. Thanks for doing this. Thanks for submitting the patch.'"

Murphy attributed her apprehension to knowing that her work would be seen and judged by people with more knowledge and experience.

"They're such experts, and if you're new to it, it can feel like, 'I don't know nearly what they know, and I'm not going to be valuable -- they've already got it under control.' But most projects in reality could use more input and more perspective," Murphy said.

Murphy's co-worker, Ann Funai, agreed. She's development director of IBM's Power Systems server line. She saw the OODA approach as especially effective for people in her profession, who often rely less on the emotional side of the brain to make sense of things.

"We like constructs as engineers," Funai said. "Here's a continuum -- here's a way you can put it into a structure and to still try to better yourself and be more self-aware in your actions and your behaviors and how you see yourself, how others see you."

On a personal note, it seems like a good construct for us right-brain thinkers, too. 

Next Steps

In Boston, an OpenStack-Kubernetes matchup

Snowden video appearance puts storage spin on OpenStack Summit

One security expert spells incident response O-O-D-A

This was last published in May 2017

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Do you ever feel like a phony? How do you handle it?
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I rarely see articles on this topic that even indirectly address the cost of impostor syndrome to organizations. So I was glad to see Hayden talk about his boss's reaction that capable people who doubt themselves are a "pain in the butt."

But it goes further. People who feel like impostors need to find a way to manage the anxiety of feeling like frauds and avoid detection. So they develop various coping and protecting mechanisms. Several of these were noted by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, the two psychologists who coined the term - impostor phenomenon -- and I've added a few. 

They include:

- Flying under the radar - not asking questions, offering ideas, going for promotions or more challenging jobs, not growing your business...

- Procrastination

- Never starting or finishing -- the degree, the book, the painting, the business plan, the website

- Self-sabotage

- Over-compensating with aggressive confidence

- Over preparing/working

They all work. But at a cost to the individual -- and their organizations.

It's the reason why I've spoken at companies like Apple, Facebook, Intel, IBM, Emerson... and many others in the STEM fields.

Which is why I totally agree with Hayden that impostor feelings span genders, races, ages, social class, disability... 

At the same time we can't dismiss the external realities that puts pressure on some people to have to represent their entire group.

Just last week a female computer science professor told me she recommended to a male colleague that they include a woman speaker on a future conference roster. He replied: We tried a woman last year and she wasn't very good.

A diverse workforce/place is important because a sense of belonging fosters confidence. The fewer people who look (or sound) like you, it can and does impact confidence. 

All the more so if you belong to a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence. 

The evidence on implicit bias is vast. 

We all make assumptions about how "smart" someone seems based on gender/race/age/disability/class. 

People with working class/regional accents are seen as less intelligent. Being the youngest -- or the oldest -- person can cause you to be seen as less capable.

When I spoke at Facebook I asked if anyone had ever felt judged as less competent based on being the oldest person in the group... and the 30 year olds' raised their hand!

Thanks for raising this important issue Jason and for sharing Hayden's talk. It's rampant in the tech world and deserves more attention.

Dr. Valerie Young
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Thanks for your comments and the useful information, Dr. Young! I too think technology -- ever-changing as it is, with flurries of new terms and capabilities -- is a good forum for conversations like these.
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