Bad Boss BS: “I’m not who you think I am.”

Bosses who suffer from a lack of confidence can be just as difficult to work with as someone who is arrogant or dismissive. It’s also sometimes more difficult to spot a boss suffering from a lack of confidence. Arrogance oozes out in every interaction. But a lack of confidence happens on the inside — and it can work its way to the surface in different behaviours. So what does a boss suffering from imposter syndrome look like?

The Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is the opposite to the Dunning-Kruger effect that I described earlier this week. Whereas some bosses overestimate their competence, those suffering from imposter syndrome do the opposite. They doubt themselves and underestimate their competence, thinking of themselves as an “imposter” — an under qualified, out-of-their-depth fake who might be caught out at any second.

Imposter syndrome can see a corrosive lack of confidence spread into every moment. It can make people silent in meetings and doubt themselves in debates. It can leave you re-reading emails multiple times, second guessing sentences and catastrophising replies. It can see a boss waver in decision-making, deferring to their boss. When they have multiple senior stakeholders this can see strategy become impossible to implement as they oscillate between the decisions and directions of others. Imposter syndrome makes things harder — for the boss and the people who are relying on them. And the fact that people are relying on you can make the anxiety even worse.

There are lots of causes for imposter syndrome. Being someone who is different to the majority can exacerbate it. Roles reliant on transferable skills can also see a higher prevalence — as people question whether their prior knowledge, skills and experience are really relevant to their current challenges. We’ve seen from the Peter Principle that bosses often jump into roles with new requirements. So a boss who is applying their leadership skills to a new sector or set of challenges could fall into the imposter syndrome trap.

Imposters tend to over-prepare and a boss with the imposter syndrome probably has a host of strategies that have helped them progress in their career. But, their confidence is likely still fragile so finding opportunities to reinforce it will help you and them.

In some cases imposter syndrome can ruin relationships and careers. People can get defensive or hold themselves back, ignoring opportunities to contribute. Whereas ‘blind arrogance’ shrinks the world of an ego-driven boss meaning they miss opportunities to learn and benefit from the skills of others, an “imposter” misses the chance to contribute and celebrate their successes. The secret, like most bad boss behaviours is to find a healthy balance — having the confidence to act, but the humility to question whether they’re doing the right thing first. As Adam Grant says, “great thinkers don’t harbour doubts because they’re imposters. They maintain them because they know we’re all partially blind and they’re committed to improving their sight.” Tomorrow I’ll be writing about one way to do that by using humble inquiry.




I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)

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I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)

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