I’m new and so there are a lot of things that I don’t know. I’ve just been promoted out of the rank and file into a supervisory position, so I must know what I am doing, and yet every day I feel like a fraud. Like they are going to find me out and send me back to the floor and take away my office.
I used to have a safety net in my job – it was my supervisor. They could help me in a tight spot, connect me with the right person, suggest a course of action or pull in other resources to get the job done. Now I am supposed to be that safety net and I am scared that the wire walkers on my team are going to hit the cement hard because I don’t know how to catch them.
This is a situation that many managers have experienced and there’s even a formal name for it – The Imposter Syndrome. In some people, it can get so bad that despite years of external evidence of their success they still cannot internalize and take credit for their own accomplishments. For managers, this leads to a constant feeling of unease with their boss and their team and creates pressure to “perform” in the way that got them the promotion. It was my seniority in the company. It was my charm. It was affirmative action. My dad is the boss’ best friend. It was anything except their own experience, skills, and performance. This self-deception only amplifies a managers feeling of being a phony and this circle of doubt could hang around their neck for years.
Fortunately for most managers, the Imposter feeling is entirely predictable and manageable.
Predictable as it almost always appears a short time after they get recognized for their prior performance with a new position, project or team. Not right away mind you. In the early days of something new, a manager will be riding on the high of recognition, promotion, and bigger compensation. They will be excited about the new challenge and like a new President, ready to make a difference in the first 90 days.
One of the most taught management training models in the world, Situational Leadership II, describes this manager as the Enthusiastic Beginner – low on competence and job knowledge but high on commitment.
The Developing or D1 manager in the chart above “doesn’t know what they don’t know” and it’s only when they “know what they don’t know” that the feeling of being an Imposter starts to enter the picture. The D2 manager is the “Disillusioned Leader” who not only doubts their competence but doesn’t feel the same commitment to the job, company or position.
While the Imposter does show up among experienced managers making an upward move in the same company from one management job to another, it is far more prevalent in the following situations:
- The first move from the shop floor or the accounts payable office or the sales territory or the developers den into a supervisor position.
- Being a manager who defies demographics in a particular unit or company, such as a woman in a tech company or a Millennial in a union shop.
- A new executive recruited into a conservative company that typically recruits from within.
In each of these situations, the environment magnifies an already uneasy transition. The new supervisor has 10 other developers wondering why they weren’t promoted. The young manager in a union shop has an experienced staff that feels they have seen and done it all. The outsider has to learn the culture of the new company and learn to manage at the same time.
This Imposter phase can last a lot longer than any manager wants it to, but it’s as manageable as it is predictable.
A good manager takes on the Imposter within by being authentic to themselves and by serving the people they manage.
A good manager focuses on the basics – working hard, being on time, listening, building relationships, and serving the team while they sort out the environment and knowledge they need to develop as a manager. The team will understand that you are new and for awhile at least, will give you a break based on your newness, as long as you are taking care of their needs in a consistent and fair manner.
At the same time, a good manager also seeks out or creates a routine of personal affirmation to ward off the Imposter. This can be done by using a daily affirmation journal where you list all the good moments in the day whether it’s people related or business related. A reminder that your skills, ideas and leadership made a difference. Ideally, it would also involve your boss, where every week you can outline the good and bad and they can provide the praise, encouragement and guidance that a new manager needs.
And part of that encouragement should be to continue to be the person you were before you got promoted – the authentic you. Not an imposter.