Monday, September 21, 2015

The Postulates of Impostor Syndrome for the Scrum Master

We are not impostors under a mask!
When I think about it, I do not consider myself a successful person.  I have an average home.  I drive an average car.  My one extravagance is my collection of compact disks and the toy soldiers which bring me joy.  I am not one of the rich and famous.  I am just an ordinary person who when I die will have my name forgotten just like many other people who came before me.  This kind of realization makes me sad.  I am one of the many unwashed masses of people.  These are the facts as I understand them and they are woefully misguided.  I suffer from what authors Pauline R. Clance and Suzannne A. Imes call “impostor syndrome.”  After a week away from work and some reflection, I wanted to write about it.

The best definition of impostor syndrome I can find online comes from Forbes magazine.  In short, a person with impostor syndrome feels like they are going to be exposed as not being smart, talented, driven, and competent enough to be doing what they are doing.  It is that little nagging voice in the back of their head which says, “Who are you kidding.” It undermines your self-confidence and your ability to do the work you are doing.  It is what David Foster Wallace would call a Darkness which is following you around.

In the business world of continuous improvement, six sigma, and agile impostor syndrome is about as common as post-it notes.  The reason why is that for many people in that world we are open to and provide criticisms and critiques of each other’s work.  We can always be faster, smarter, and better communicators.  Sometimes, this generates soul crushing moments of frustration and futility.  Nothing is worse than being told you could have communicated something better when you send out 10 e-mails daily, speak to people personally twice in a day, and have a white board filled with information for upper management to read.  It is almost like they want me to sit on their chests like a hungry cat wanting to be fed on a lazy Sunday morning.

I think something deeper causes us to feel like we are impostors.  Human beings are pretty complicated things.  Over the last four hundred years we have done a pretty good job understanding how bodies work, but we are still struggling with understanding how our minds work.  We are not computers who all run code the same way.  We are complicated puddles of emotions, memories, and experiences who if we try hard enough can be rational thinking beings when the need arises.  This is why it is hard for me as a scrum master to be upbeat and positive all the time; sometimes the Darkness wins.  After some thought, on the matter I broke this down into four things which foster these feelings of being an impostor.

Consider these to be Wisniowski’s four postulates of Impostor Syndrome.

The Outside Image

As early as middle school, a professional is taught to dress and act a particular way.  While other young people get tattoos, piercings and are looking to have hair colors that do not occur in nature; the larval professional is told that they must act, dress and behave in a certain way to be credible for others.  This learning process creates what is known as a mask of command which other see but hides your true self.  This personal branding and quest to build leadership presence is not a natural process for most people so it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance where professionals are afraid that someone will penetrate their mask.  The situation is still not as bad as during the mad men era of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s but it is still there.  Just ask yourself when was the last time you saw a banker without a neck tie at the local branch.

The Inner Turmoil

Every human being is the sum of their experiences and not all of these experiences are good.  Each of us have suffered from failure, heart break, frustration, and disappointment.  This undermines your self-esteem.  The trouble is that in the business world you cannot be emotional because being emotional is a sign of weakness.  Thus, these feelings are buried and over time if they are not addressed they can manifest themselves in harmful ways.  In the quest to be strong, we undermine our own health and mental well-being.

The first two postulates of impostor syndrome cover what can be controlled by the individual.  The last too are outside of an individual’s control.

Our Public Reputation

Every professional is concerned about his or her personal brand and how others see them.  Around the office we all know people who are the ones who drink too much, who over share their lives, and who smell like feet.  To be a successful professional, we want to be perceived as the one who is hard working, knowledgeable, and able to take difficult projects and succeed.  The trouble with this is, try as we might to cultivate a positive reputation, it is out of our control.  Other people control our reputation because it is a product of our actions and the perceptions of others who see our actions.  One person’s hard worker is another person’s suck up to management.  The person who is fashionable to one co-worker is another person’s dressed inappropriate for the office.  Because of this lack of control, we try even harder to influence those opinions because a negative reputation could affect our career.

Our Personal Misconceptions

Finally, human beings are evolved creatures with emotions and an unconscious mind.  Cognitive science has shown that our unconscious mind can deceive us.  It has been shown that people suffering from Anorexia look at themselves in the mirror and have very different perceptions than people who do not suffer from the disease.  People with impostor syndrome reflect on their appearance and achievements through the same kind of distorted lens.  We did not graduate from school because we worked hard.  We did not earn the career success we have.  We see it as luck or the intervention of others.  Thus, even though the facts of our lives may say otherwise; our unconscious minds and emotions trick us into thinking that we are somehow faking it through our careers.

So those are my postulates about impostor syndrome.  I have been thinking about this lately because being a scrum master is to live with self-doubt.  You could always be better, more efficient, and able to handle more.  The reality is that sometimes you need to accept yourself warts and all and do the best you can.  I look forward to hearing what you have to say about this and how it applies to your work as an agile practitioner or scrum master.

Until next time.