Addressing Imposter Syndrome with your team

In January, I organized a team day focused on Imposter Syndrome for the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation group led by Prof. Dr. Ir. Frank van Langevelde at Wageningen University and Research. From PhD students to the professor himself, all 35 team members participated in the session.

  • Why should you put Imposter Syndrome on your team’s agenda?
  • What is the impact of such a team day on Imposter Syndrome?
  • Does Frank himself ever experience the fear of being exposed as a fraud?

The answers to these questions and more can be found in this interview with Frank van Langevelde.

By: Linda van der Wal

What was the reason for organizing a day on Imposter Syndrome with your team?

“We started organizing an Expectation Day to discuss what we expect from each other as PhDs and supervisors. We all want the best for ourselves and for the group, and we want to develop ourselves. During the conversations on Expectation Day, Imposter Syndrome quickly emerged. There are so many hoops to jump through in academia. Expectations are high. You start comparing yourself to others, thinking everyone else is the smartest person in the world while underestimating your own qualities. Many people suffer from the feeling that they could be exposed at any moment.”

“That was the reason to put Imposter Syndrome on the agenda, so we could discuss it openly. If you can talk about it openly and realize you are not alone, the Imposter Syndrome becomes less paralyzing.”

“It surprises me that more people don’t address Imposter Syndrome with their team. It is an important topic.”

Imposter Syndrome is an important topic

Frank is surprised that more people on his team do not address Imposter Syndrome, as ‘it is an important topic.’ To him, it seems very logical to put it on the agenda and share his own insecurities, but I find it super cool. This amazes Frank. In my experience, not every leader has the courage or skills to put this topic on the agenda. It is a vulnerable subject that needs to be discussed carefully, especially given the hierarchy within the team. This is one reason why Frank sought support in designing and facilitating this day.

A safe environment is essential to discuss Imposter Syndrome

Creating a safe environment was crucial to ensuring the topic could be discussed meaningfully. This was evident from my intake with Frank and was a key focus in the co-creation team. In preparation, we formed a small group representing all parts of the team. By listening carefully to what was going on, the program was truly tailored to this group.

The challenge was to create a safe environment not only for the on-site participants but also for those online. It was essential to Frank that even those abroad could fully participate. Honestly, I had my concerns beforehand. Who hasn’t heard of poorly managed hybrid meetings? But with careful planning and the help of my colleagues Jasmijn Mioch and Francisca from Frank’s team, we made it a success.

“Imposter Syndrome is less paralyzing if you can discuss it with each other.”

An interactive session with a true facilitator

To make the session a success, Frank sought someone to assist him. “The person needed to understand Imposter Syndrome and be familiar with the academic world’s dynamics.” In the past, Frank had attended trainings that turned into monologues by facilitators who were more lecturers. “What I appreciated about your approach was that the group had enough time and space to discuss among themselves and delve deeper into specific questions. The whole group participated actively.”

The impact of a team day on Imposter Syndrome

“I now dare to discuss my Imposter feelings with my supervisor because I know they also experience these doubts,” said a PhD student after the session. For Frank, the most important outcome is that the group got to know each other better. “We realized many of us sometimes feel this way. Recognizing and acknowledging this feeling is the most important step.” As a true scientist, Frank notes that the long-term effect is not immediately clear and that one day is not enough to master all techniques to overcome Imposter thoughts.

Even full professors can suffer from Imposter Syndrome

What I find particularly special is that Frank dares to share with his group that he sometimes doubts himself. At the beginning of the session, Frank talked about when he first became a chair holder. “I walked into a meeting and thought, ‘will the real chair holder please stand up.’ I loved doing it, but also thought, ‘who am I to be a chair holder.’ Even though I had applied for the position and got the job for a reason.” He still sometimes notices Imposter Syndrome in himself, for example, when others respond very quickly and confidently, he occasionally doubts himself. “Getting feedback from your environment, hearing that you are on the right track, helps.”

Want to tackle Imposter Syndrome yourself?

Do you or your team members recognize Imposter feelings and thoughts? Check out the page Breakthrough Imposter Syndrome to see what you can do about it.

Or feel free to get in touch so we can schedule an introductory meeting to examine what the challenges in your team are and discuss whether I can help you.