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How to Manage People Who Feel Inadequate

When being humble and perfectionist might indicate imposter syndrome.

Image by Katrina Wright / Unsplash

Listening is one of the greatest management skills. It allows you to understand what people want and how they work. At the same time, you learn a lot about yourself.

So, the management job will not grow over your head. It is clear — you do want to be the best manager for every single team member you have.

You might not spend equal time with each of them, and that is fine. Assess your team’s needs. Management is an investment in all different types of people.

I am pretty sure you have ever worked with a colleague who would fit my following description.

This colleague was quite a negative person.

She doubted everything all the time.

As far as I remember, she was very strict with herself and others. She kept on saying she didn’t learn enough. She needed to work more. She wanted more experience. She did not deserve promotion and similar statements.

No matter how successful she was and how greatly she performed, she never accepted it and was too much of a perfectionist. When there was a problem, or she made a mistake, she freaked out.

Her confidence drowned under high-stress levels. That inhibited her from solving problems, although she was perfectly capable of dealing with them. When she came to consult me, she brought solutions.

So, I reckoned she only underestimated herself and needed listening. Everything worked like clockwork, and I received only positive feedback from other colleagues who worked with her.

However, when I thanked her for her job and praised her skills. The most I could get out of her was a sheepish smile. On other occasions, she did not believe colleagues, or I meant it.

When I brought up a promotion or pay raise, she waved me away — people would think she did not deserve it. Moreover, she was often angry about processes in our company, doubting her job and decisions made. We were amused by her constant negative mood.

The team members accepted that she was like that. While I was afraid, she was not happy at work at all. I then learned about imposter syndrome.

Doubting is not always an indication of imposter syndrome. It is only natural.

However, if your psychological state is blocking happiness from achievements and prevents you from accepting your skills, that’s when you can shake a hand to the imposter syndrome.

Often unnoticed, and underestimated

In easy words, imposter syndrome means that you don’t believe you are good enough.

You are unsure if you are doing a good job, even if you are. You feel you need to work harder, learn more, and that you don’t deserve things. You doubt your skills, achievements, or talent.

The closest expression is a feeling of inadequacy. Now, have you ever asked or told yourself these questions and statements?

What do I do here? I would not be a good fit anyway.

Why am I even trying? I am useless.

Can I ask for this? Do I deserve it? Promotion? No, I am not ready.

This person is better than me. He/she should do the job.

Ah right, you praise me now, but you don’t mean it.

That’s fine, no need to thank me. It is not a big deal.

I should sit and do my job. Someone will notice me one day.

I don’t know if I want this.

Does it sound familiar to you?

Do you or someone you know speak like that?

Because it could be an indication of inadequacy feeling. Highly successful people can suffer from it as they often work the extra mile. They could be incredibly pedantic and drawn to perfectionism. So, all the perfectionists, watch out!

When praising does not help

It is not as straightforward as one might think. As I mentioned before, my colleague did not accept praises.

She was not flattered. She barely showed any appreciation. Therefore, after some trying, I understood that the things I told her did not help. Positive things like:

You are great. Thank you for your help.

You are doing a good job. I would not be able to do that without you.

Our colleagues and I are really happy to work with you.

Trust yourself, you can do that.

Don’t be such a perfectionist, it is great as it is.

This communication did not go to the root of the problem. So, eventually, instead of being this smiley manager, I decided to stick around, deliver fair feedback, both positive and negative, and listen when she wanted to talk.

Giving space was the best decision.

Tips for managing self-doubters

As a manager, be aware it is a journey. Shy people, who suffer from imposter syndrome, could feel even more inadequate and unprofessional if you openly ask them about it.

You can’t magically change them from day to day, but you can sensitively help them. However, there is a lot of work to be done by people themselves. Therefore, put down your ‘save the world’ attitude, as you also have other team members to manage.

It is tremendously helpful to analyze what triggers such feelings. Many situations are not pleasant for people. For instance, public recognition at the all-staff meeting — shy people might not enjoy being in the spotlight. They might feel like a fraud.

Another example is feeling inadequate when someone thanks them for their job. They often see it automatically — “I just do my job, why do you thank me?”.

My colleague hated speaking about her projects during team meetings. She did not want to look stupid in front of others when there was a mistake or problem.

She was not interested and even sounded offended. So, what I did was I established a 15 min project stand-up, where everyone spoke about their latest projects and shared lessons learned.

What great training! With time, she accepted that people listened to her ideas and slowly embraced the fact she knew her stuff without others judging her failures.

What else you can do is to support people in their endeavors. My colleague was an excellent project manager. However, when a problem emerged, she was not confident enough to solve it.

So, she asked me to attend a phone call or a meeting with her.

My presence was purely conforming. I did not contribute to the discussion. I was there ‘just in case she needed me. That was it.

The second example is about listening. My colleague sometimes came to our meetings, and she talked about everything else but the job.

That way, I understood what made her happy and her personality better.

So, listening without steering the conversation or forcing the person to talk about work and projects only can sometimes build a stronger relationship.

Imposter syndrome is a pattern of how people perceive things.

So, be patient and understanding. They do not do it on purpose. Promote them when you can since they are unable to do it themselves.

Moreover, they would feel inappropriate. You can spend a word or two and appreciate their work. It is a small step, but with a massive impact.

People with imposter syndrome are often afraid that others see them as fraud. Therefore, building a diverse, welcoming environment where people appreciate each other is the best for all, including people who underestimate themselves.

Final thought

Please be aware that you can’t prioritize people, not in a professional environment. However, you can guide them in favor of their career and job. You stand by your team.

Advise and mentor them. Their performance is reflecting your skills. Yet, you must be fair. It is alright to spend more time with some and less with others.

You are the best manager for each team member if you understand how to work together. You might have confident colleagues; you might have insecure colleagues.

Try to be a manager for all different types of people. They have a thing in common — you can help them in their career by providing opportunities and sensitively working with them. Listen to them, and the results will follow.


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