Imposter Syndrome and the Agile Organization

Do you ever feel like you’re not enough in pretty much any role you’re in?  You have evidence of external successes around you but think that most of those were either pure luck or a fluke. You’ve worked tirelessly to prove to yourself your whole life, but you just can’t seem to cut it. If this resonates with you, you may have imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome may be preventing you from bringing your innovations and ideas to market, although it might mean you’re actually a very high achiever and very smart. It may also be preventing businesses from transforming. The Agile organization needs every single person to contribute to the business. Everybody has to be change leaders. But if imposter syndrome is holding them back, transformation is just not going to work.

I’m reviewing all the bloopers in my head, but all I’m picturing for these other people are the edited reels that look awesome.

We sat down with Billie Schuttpelz,  a certified SPC 4.5 and ICP-certified professional in Agile coaching with a master’s degree in human performance technology, to discuss how imposter syndrome manifests itself and how it affects our work, especially in the Agile space.  Billie has not only personally struggled with imposter syndrome, but has studied the topics of fear of failure and perfectionism extensively. She gives us 8 great lessons on imposter syndrome:

1. You may have imposter syndrome.

When you come up to an opportunity, let’s say it’s a promotion at work, what’s some of the first thoughts that go through your head? If you read a job description and it’s for a level above what you’re doing right now, do you think, “Oh, in about five years I might be ready for that?” Or, do you think, “Oh, surely somebody else is going to be the right person for that. It’s not me,” even though your friends are telling you to apply for that job.

When you look at conference speakers, do you think, “I could never be a conference speaker?” Well, that’s not true. Most of us, all of us probably could, in a heartbeat, but what are the thoughts that are going through people’s head? People with the imposter syndrome often see the talent in somebody else, and yet they don’t have the ability to see it themselves.

2. Trauma may be at the root of imposter syndrome.

One of the more controversial aspects of the research is that people with imposter syndrome may have had traumatic childhoods. I have not done enough of my own research to validate that, but with the people I’ve talked to, that’s usually true. There’s been some sort of trauma. Again, trauma is individual, there’s no comparing traumas, right? But there’s been something that has taken root in them, and that they probably weren’t able to meet somebody’s expectations as a child or they were constantly told what they did wasn’t good enough. Somewhere they believed, “I’m not enough for the world.”

3. There’s a fine line between humility and imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome stops us in our tracks, and we don’t actually do anything or take action. It may feel more natural to just step back and not take that risk, and to feel like you’ll get rewarded for being humble. [You tell yourself,] “Oh good. If I just step back and let someone else do it, then there’s no risk of failing, and that way nobody could label me a failure.” It is what I call the safe zone. It’s our own personal safety area where, “I’m going to stay in here. I know how to operate in this. Less likely that I’m going to fail in this area.” Don’t want to embarrass ourselves, right?

[However,] being humble means you accept that speaking engagement and you know that you can probably do a good job even if you’re a little nervous, but you do say yes. You do take the risk.

We need every single person to become able to take risks and make decisions, and be critical thinkers, or Agile transformation is not going happen.

4. Fear of failure is affecting the workplace today.

We need the people and the middle management, and the senior managers. We need every single person to become able to take risks and make decisions, and be critical thinkers, or Agile transformation is not going happen. It’s going to stall out if the people do not change their mindsets, and a lot of it is the imposter syndrome. When something needs to be done, everybody’s kind of like, “Well, I think someone else might do it.”


Or, maybe a decision needs to be made. Maybe there’s a defect that’s coming through and it’s stopping production. We need people to step up and take action without fear of failure, and that’s why again, my theory and my hypothesis is that, if we can root out the imposter syndrome within our teams and our communities and our companies, everything will kind of explode. We’ll get innovations and action and risks. It’ll be good.

5. Assessment tests are available to evaluate yourself or your team!

Agile teams have high collaboration and people have individual responsibility to be a team player. With a team of five to seven people, we really need everybody to be fully engaged, and it kind of comes down to that, just being personally engaged when you’re there with your team.

There’s an official imposter syndrome scale (PDF) developed by Pauline Clance. I think it would be worthwhile if you are on a team, to run one of those scales within your team, and discuss the results, and discuss other things about, “Do you guys feel like you’re normally risk takers?” And discuss that, low to high. “Do you feel like you’re normally creative as a team?” Low to high.

Have them say how much this is affecting their life, low to high. That would be a pretty good team building event, and it would expose quite a bit, I think, within the team members. Then, they can help each other. Part of the way out of this is finding that community that will call you on it, and help you work through it in the moment.


6. Overcoming imposter syndrome

The next phase is doing some reframing techniques. Cognitive reframing is a psychological technique that consists of identifying and then disputing irrational or maladaptive thoughts. Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives. Ask yourself questions like, “What would happen if I did go to that job? What would happen if I did take that risk?

There are techniques such as simulations, playing a different role, flipping the conversation on its head, putting yourself into the other person’s shoes. If you’re applying for a conference, pretend like you’re the conference organizer and you’re reading your abstract. What would you say about it?

There’s no such thing as the perfect way to get out of imposter syndrome. It’s really that deep self-awareness and nobody can give that to you. People have to do the work if they want to get out of it, and then they’ll definitely notice the changes that they’re bringing to their workplace, and the community.

7. “Fake It ‘Til You Make It” does not apply to imposter syndrome.

Another technique is just going ahead and doing it, which I don’t think is the same as “fake it ’til you make it” because I prepared for all the conferences. I went there and put in the hard work, so I wasn’t faking it. It’s more about taking the risk and submitting. I kind of hate that sentence when people use it around imposter syndrome… it’s about just moving forward. Take the next step, and then you can do the hard work there, and then take the next step, and do the hard work there.

8. Stop looking at your blooper reel.

When I was trying to decide if I should go into outside coaching, I thought, “Oh no, such a big leap.” One of the things Amitai Schlair said to me at the time was, “Stop looking at your blooper reel.” I’m reviewing all the bloopers in my head, but all I’m picturing for these other people are the edited reels that look awesome. What we’re thinking about other people is so not real. We need to have a lot of grace for ourselves.

Excerpts are taken from this recent Agile Amped podcast:

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