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  • Writer's pictureMagga Dora Ragnarsdottir

Creatives and impostor syndrome

The idea that we are impostors is fascinating because it gives insight into the way that we think about how people operate and think.

When we look at others that we like to learn from or compare ourselves with the only thing we see is the result. We don’t see the work put in it. Since we tend to build our opinion only on the information we have in front of us and ignore other aspects, the conclusion we jump to is that their successes are a result of a linear progression that they systematically worked through to get to where they are currently. A successful actress / musician / scientist must have succeeded because they at some point mapped out the road to there and diligently followed each step.

There are three powerful cognitive biases at work here. First of all is Attribution Bias which leads us to assume that the root of other people’s behavior is based on their makeup instead of external factors such as effort or situation. This is primarily because we have little insight into the external factors that lead to a certain behavior in anyone else that ourselves. So we measure ourselves on a totally different yardstick than others.

The second is the assumption of perfect rationality a.k.a. Homo economicus. This old characterization of people makes us look like perfectly rational agents that always weigh the pros and cons of each situation and make a decision based on maximizing utility. Even though psychology has long since refuted this idea of how people actually function this idea is unbelievably persistent and it influences how we perceive people around us.

In short, our idea of how people function is that their behavior is guided by their inbuilt disposition, which includes being perfectly rational.

And then we look in the mirror.

There we see that the progression is very messily non-linear, we recognize the impact of luck, chance and sweat. Not seeing how other people sweat, we assume that all the effort we need to put into our work is because of our failings. Our failing of skill/brains/experience/insight which those we admire so clearly have in abundance.

How soul crushing.

Hellooooo, impostor syndrome.

Being aware of our biases is important, but I do not think that we should aim to do completely overcome them, even though that means that for us personally we have to suffer through the feeling of being an impostor. I think it is just as important to doubt one’s ability, else we risk becoming arrogant and overconfident.

Check your ego at the door

As much as I loathe impostor syndrome and all the energy it takes away from me (physically and cognitively) I think it is important to foster some doubt of one’s ability. If we don’t we risk arrogance and overconfidence. This is especially important in teams that rely on intimate collaboration which is common in my profession as a designer.

The current business environment demands that organizations be very flexible. In order to stay relevant they needs to react swiftly to situations and even to preempt them with innovative solutions. What we have come to realize is that working collaboratively is key to this flexibility. Companies that understand that fare much better than those that still emphasize siloed and hierarchical structures.

This comes at a cost for the employees. Being collaborative means keeping an open mind, it means listening to others, it means being willing to course correct (admit failure) but most of all it means letting go of the notion that your idea is the ONE idea that works or else you’ll lose face. In collaboration, nobody loses face. Collaboration means everyone pools together their abilities for shared glory (or blame). We call it “checking your ego at the door”.

Those that work under the work-ethic of checking their ego at the door are especially vulnerable for impostor syndrome.

Our training doesn’t really prepare us for this. Throughout school collaboration is subtly discouraged, even termed “cheating”. When group projects are enforced we fear that someone will ride on our coattails. The loathsome free-rider. Or worse, someone who sabotages the outcome which will bring a bad grade to the whole team. Grades are so entwined with our ideas of self-worth that this is perceived as a huge risk.

So, the collaborative business environment pushes people out of their comfort zones big time. It asks us to put aside our measures of self-worth and give over to the team. The only way you can participate is with an open mind. A mind that is open to admitting that everyone has a valuable contribution because of their diverse training, viewpoint and background. We can’t do that if our primary, instinctual notion is to defend our “honor”, “ego”, “interests”, whatever we decide to call it.

Unless you are exceptionally zen (i.e. a Buddhist monk) this is a constant struggle. We want to shine. We want people to admire our individual contribution and tell us that we are brilliant but if we give in, the team and the potential outcome suffers.

When your job is to facilitate that collaboration, to entice the best from each and every team member this is even more important.

So we fan our self-doubt and harness it for the good of the team. The constant balancing act is avoiding to slip into debilitating impostor syndrome.

If you manage collaborative teams, you have a role to play in that.

Tending to the ego

Members of collaborative teams are expected to check their ego at the door because they cannot be effective collaborators if they are worrying about their ego. Close collaboration requires active listening, willingness to change ones mind and admit failure and a positive attitude to input from all team members, irrespective of title or rank. Collaboration means everyone pools together their abilities for shared glory (or blame).

We designers do this all day, every day. However, there are very few that are able to become completely ego-less. To avoid slipping into debilitating impostor syndrome, we need to maintain our egos at a level where they support our self-confidence and ambition. Our feelings of value and self-worth. So we pick it up again as we leave the room. To be able to build a career in design or any other industry that requires intimate collaboration, our most important task outside of work is ego-care; basic love and maintenance of our egos.

Common techniques that I see people use for ego-care:

Contributing individually to the work environment (arranging extra curricular activity, bringing donuts, mentoring…) and getting recognized for thatThe love of our family and friendsBeing recognized for skills in extracurricular activities such as cooking/carpentry/gardening/…Reaching goals in physical activity (FitBit/Strava play a large role here)

If you manage collaborative teams, listen out for how the members of your teams tend to their egos. It will be much easier for them to check their egos at the door, to be effective collaborators, if they are successful at tending to their egos outside work. Be sure to listen out or how you can support that.

Your creatives may need something completely different, than the above list. But if you want them to be at their best at work, take this part of your job as a manager seriously and ask yourself: How can I validate my team members so that they keep their feelings of appreciation and self-worth while they submit to the team?


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