By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal
As an employer for 25 years I had many occasions to counsel employees and clients on the merits of being their own biggest fan. There probably wasn’t a week during my 25 years of business ownership that some issue involving confidence didn’t come up. Many times these issues were disguised as something else but after a while you get pretty good at sniffing out people’s concerns about their own abilities. And these are very talented people I am talking about!
Self-doubt, lack of confidence, chalking it up to luck, knowing that eventually you’ll be found out—at one time or another almost all successful, capable people have had moments of self-doubt. And if you’re reading this, you know you can relate. But here’s what you may not know: those feelings that you’re not good enough or you are going to be found out and all the others may not be as negative as you think. If anything, they are signs that you have an ability to honestly analyze your own shortcomings. That’s a good thing! Unfortunately, if those moments of self-doubt are more than an occasional experience, you may be dealing with something called Imposter Syndrome. It may be that you cannot internalize your own competency and that’s not so good, not just for you but often for those around you. It’s not that you can’t see your successes, you are just emotionally disconnected from them and that means:
a) You’re probably anxious a lot
b) You cannot experience the full ownership of your success and
c) You have a hard time feeling that you can contribute what you know to others because you feel they’ll see through you.
In my own experience I have often found self-doubt and education tied together in people’s minds. When we were just getting started with our consulting practice we were fortunate to land a couple of big contracts early on. The amount of work necessitated hiring some administrative staff and through an agency we quickly found a couple of people, in this case women, who were just what we were looking for. They both had exceptional keyboard skills and working knowledge of the basic administrative software we hoped to use as well as certifications from local business programs. We were very happy with our new employees but within a very short period of time we recognized that both these women were much more talented than they realized. In fact, I eventually came to refer to one as the smartest person I knew, and I meant it.
The challenge we saw was their own self-image. In their minds they were “office workers” and had educated themselves to fit their self-image. Within a short period of time and a number of counseling conversations we were able to have both these employees recognize that they were capable of much higher level functions than they had ever imagined. Not that they didn’t have their doubts, but in time they began to see that if they trusted the potential we saw in them eventually their own experience of competence would catch up with them. This actually became a pattern in our business and we took a great deal of pride in having new employees come to us with the understanding that their only limitations in our company were their own imaginations and willingness to learn.
What we experienced with our employees over the years was different than Imposter Syndrome but nonetheless just as limiting. While the imposter never gets to experience the full joy of their competence those limited by self-image never get to experience the full range of their talents and subject themselves to, more or less, a life sentence to live within their self-imposed boundaries.
As employers we owe it to ourselves to be on the lookout for symptoms of these limiting conditions in our employees.This may sound like I’m suggesting you become a social worker in your own business, but it’s far from that I can assure you. There has been more than one time in my life when I was slowed by self-doubt and someone I trusted stepped in and offered to believe in me when I was having trouble believing in myself. Were they social workers? Hardly. They were coaches, teachers, employers, people who recognized that by investing something of themselves in me they would win as well. And not in some intangible sense either.
Take a look tomorrow, you’ll find one or maybe two employees that are waiting to be discovered. They don’t know it yet. That’s your job, to let them know you can see they are capable of much more than they imagine.
Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Bellingham area.