How to mentor someone with imposter syndrome

By now, most of us are familiar with imposter syndrome: that nagging feeling of self-doubt that our success isn’t earned or deserved, and that we’ll shortly be discovered as the frauds and shown the door. For most of us, these feelings are common but also fleeting. For example, we might feel anxious just after starting a new job, after a particularly grueling procurement interview, or after receiving a promotion.

But for some of us though, these feelings become somewhat more permanent, and begin to impact performance as a result. This can be particularly challenging for our mentors: how, as a mentor, do you work with someone whose every success triggers anxiety and debilitating self-doubt? 

Here’s some best-practice tips for mentoring someone who is suffering- temporarily or more fundamentally – with imposter syndrome: 

  1. Challenge the negativity 

A hallmark sign of someone suffering from imposter syndrome is negativity towards every element of their performance. They might say things like: 

  • “I didn’t articulate myself well enough in that meeting – everyone definitely thought I was stupid” or 
  • “I’m just waiting for them to realise I’m not right for this job!” or 
  • “This really isn’t my strength – and I’m not sure what is.” 

As a mentor, if you hear these comments, it’s important to counter them, but in a particular way. Instead of simply saying “that’s not true”, point to other evidence that what they’re saying surely couldn’t be true. 

For example, with the above statements, you could say: 

  • “Everyone in the meeting was nodding and acknowledging what you said, which means that you articulated yourself very well.” 
  • “You met multiple intelligent, experienced and competent people during your job interview, so unless they are all terrible at their job, they must have thought you were the right fit.” 
  • “The fact that you’ve got to this point in your career demonstrates you have many strengths, even if you may not feel that way.” 
  1. Acknowledge that imposter feelings are normal 

If you mentee is experiencing imposter syndrome, they are certainly not alone: 85% of employees experience imposter syndrome at some point in their career. 

Imposter syndrome also isn’t limited to the average procurement professional, either. Some of the world’s most successful people, including Lady Gaga, Tom Hanks, and Sheryl Sandberg, have all admitted to having imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. 

For this reason, if your mentee is struggling with imposter syndrome, it’s important to remind them that most other people do struggle at some point, too. Consider telling them the following: 

  • “Most people struggle with these feelings. And many are able to move beyond them – just like I know you will be able to.” 
  • “If someone doesn’t seem to struggle with imposter syndrome, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily more competent or intelligent than you … it just means they may not be as self-aware or they may be more confident.” 
  • “In general, men feel more comfortable winging it … but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily better at what they do.”  
  1. Acknowledge success – again and again 

As a mentor, your role is one of support and encouragement. Ultimately, when your mentee does succeed, they’ll also look to you to celebrate their successes and encourage them to aim higher. And doing so this is particularly important if your mentee is struggling with imposter syndrome. 

As a mentor, continue to reassure your mentee that they do belong, that they are competent, and that they deserve their success.  Try to encourage them to not compare themselves to others, and instead focus on what they have achieved and what this means to them. 

Have you ever mentored someone with imposter syndrome? Do you have any other recommendations to help a mentee overcome it? Let us know in the comments below.