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Harnessing self-doubt to power innovation

By Paige Seaborn | November 3, 2022

When you’re feeling like an imposter and doubting your intellectual abilities, try viewing your doubt as an opportunity for growth.
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Imposter syndrome has gotten media attention amid the increasing focus around emotional wellbeing. Although imposter syndrome is not an official psychiatric disorder according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), in extreme cases it can result in diagnosable conditions such as anxiety and depression. But many professionals – particularly high achievers – have feelings of inadequacy that while described as imposter syndrome are normal feelings of self-doubt that can be positive. Such emotions often inspire individuals to challenge themselves and achieve more. Harnessed in a healthy way, it can be a driving force for innovation.

What is imposter syndrome?

People experiencing imposter syndrome believe they are lesser than others believe them to be and are consumed by dread that this will be discovered. They see successes as the result of good luck and not as the result of their own skill and performance.

In extreme cases, sufferers can use cognitive behavioral therapy to combat the challenge of imposter syndrome by putting into perspective feelings of being a fraud. And just as cognitive behavioral therapy teaches us to change the way we think about our anxieties, we can similarly change the way we think about self-doubt – viewing it as normal and necessary to succeed in innovating and changing.

‘Uncertainty is a precursor to growth’

In a recent LinkedIn post, Wharton professor and best-selling author Adam Grant writes, “Imposter syndrome isn’t a disease. It's a normal response to internalizing impossibly high standards. Doubting yourself doesn’t mean you’re going to fail. It usually means you’re facing a new challenge and you’re going to learn. Feeling uncertainty is a precursor to growth.”

Isn’t doubt a tool we use every day as innovators to challenge critical assumptions? Don’t we tackle challenges amid uncertainty and ambiguity every day? And wouldn’t we rather be at peace with failure and fail fast to avoid spending unnecessary time on a non-viable idea? The answer is yes, and we can apply these skills to our own self-doubt as well.

Tyler Cowen, George Mason economist and co-author of the book Talent, advises leaders and managers to focus on employees experiencing imposter syndrome as they are likely the most driven to get the right answer, solve problems and take a truly comprehensive view of their work.

Employees experiencing self-doubt are often less narrow-minded than employees who seem to know everything. An employee who is overly confident or certain may not think broadly enough to consider all they might not know and all the potential pitfalls.

Your best innovators are likely aware of “known unknowns” – things we know we don’t know and need to figure out. But your employees experiencing self-doubt are also keenly aware of (and anxious about) the likely existence of “unknown unknowns” – things we don’t know we don’t know. The latter are probably experiencing some level of imposter syndrome and a greater level of stress. They’re trying to prepare for what will happen and what could happen.

Some personal experiences with self-doubt

When it comes to innovation, some of the best innovators and innovation team leads experience self-doubt:

  • Many of us are generalists rather than experts and are part of a wide variety of projects – so we often need to ask a lot of questions. Asking questions may come naturally to some. But more than likely, some of those people have experienced self-doubt in the past and got up the courage to keep going anyway. They ask the "stupid" questions and tend to find others are grateful someone finally asked the burning question everyone was pondering.
  • My colleague, Claudia Guembe, innovation Sprint Lead and WTW Innovation Masters program leader, spoke recently about feeling like an imposter when leading subject matter experts in a particularly complex area through the innovation process: "Yes, I felt like an imposter at first. Why should this very experienced team listen to me? Was I leading them down the wrong path? I chose to persevere and dive in headfirst when I felt like an imposter. This meant phrasing my recommendations differently, even if it exposed my inexperience (real or perceived). I even said, ‘I'm feeling a bit like a fake here since you're all so experienced. Please know I'm here to advise you on our innovation process and to challenge, but this is a team effort.’

    “The key is to approach the situation with humility and not take yourself too seriously. It all comes from the opinion that being wrong or doing things wrong is OK – we shouldn't feel ashamed. Instead, we can learn from mistakes, value the learning and change direction. You'll be smarter for it, so you win.”

With a little encouragement and the right messaging (and undoubtedly a fair amount of bravery), innovators with self-doubt can become some of the strongest contributors, driven to succeed while thinking of and preparing for a multitude of risks along the way. They just need help overcoming it.

How to harness and reframe self-doubt

To use your self-doubt for good, reframe it and act on it:

  • If you don’t address it, who will? If you have a nagging question, then ask it. You probably are not out of the loop, but rather are more perceptive than everyone else. More likely, others haven’t thought of the question or are afraid to ask. Your highly perceptive nature got you there first. Go ahead and ask that question. It maybe critically important to the project.
  • If you’re feeling uncertain about something, odds are others are too. Self-doubt is normal in uncertain situations. Admitting your self-doubt takes confidence. Shaking off your self-doubt and bringing questions to the forefront shows leadership. You're likely addressing what's on everyone else's mind and taking the pressure off them to ask the hard questions. You’re addressing the elephant in the room, and people will thank you for it.
  • Think about the leaders you admire most. Are they the ones who staunchly refuse to admit there are things they don't know? Or are they the people who connect with others through shared humanity and curiosity? In innovation we use empathy to better understand the experiences of our target customers and users to produce solutions that solve their problems. You can share your own experiences of self-doubt and how you address it to build an empathetic connection with your team. Chances are some of them are experiencing the same thing and will empathize with you as well, leading to a more collaborative environment where challenges and questions are identified and addressed more quickly.
  • You can’t be a fraud if you’re transparent and communicative. Avoid the "fake it ‘til you make it" approach by putting everything out there (within reason, of course). There's no risk of getting called an imposter – whether this feeling is real or imagined – if you are open and honest.

Self-doubt is part of a growth mindset

If you’re not feeling self-doubt amid uncertainty, chances are you are too comfortable and not doing something that really challenges you. A little self-doubt can be healthy to push you to take on new challenges and grow. Obviously, that’s easier said than done. To get started, work on cultivating your growth mindset. This is a mindset that embraces change, strives for constant improvement and believes in the ability of individuals to develop, learn and grow.

When you’re feeling like an imposter and doubting your intellectual abilities, try viewing your doubt as an opportunity for growth and imagine all you can achieve.

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