Psychological Safety #52: Imposter Syndrome

Training, Workshops, Exercises and Tools

Psychological Safety #52: Imposter Syndrome

microaggressions video

Welcome to the psychological safety newsletter and thanks for subscribing. You are awesome. This week is about imposter syndrome, microaggressions and inclusion, Agile Product Owners, and crises!If you enjoy reading this newsletter, please share it via your social networks and/or forward it to other people who may appreciate it!

Our next online meetup is the 29th of March! We are lucky enough to have the amazing Nora Jones, Founder and CEO of Jeli. Nora is most well known for her amazing work on Chaos Engineering and has a great passion for psychological safety and the intersection of software and peopleRegister for the meetup here!

This newsletter is sponsored by Conflux.

Conflux is the leading business consultancy worldwide helping organisations to navigate fast flow in software. We help organisations to adopt and sustain proven, modern practices for delivering software rapidly and safely.

We’ve recently been reading ‘The Fearless Organization’ by Amy C. Edmondson, and Sophie Weston, Principal at Conflux, has put together some key takeaways from the book in this article

Psychological Safety In the Workplace: I’m super excited to be attending Ruth Malan’s Technical Leadership Masterclass over the next couple of weeks. But I’m also experiencing massive imposter syndrome (or is it? maybe I actually am an imposter!). Ruth is a master in her field, as are many members of the previous cohorts of this training. Now, being introduced to some of my fellow students for this iteration, many of whom are really well known across the industry for the expertise and experience, I’m definitely feeling rather intimidated!

I’ve previously shared amazing pieces by Ruchika Tulshyan in the newsletter (issue 4), and here’s a fantastic piece from Ruchika and Jodi-Ann Burey about imposter syndrome – “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome“: “We often falsely equate confidence — most often, the type demonstrated by white male leaders — with competence and leadership. Employees who can’t (or won’t) conform to male-biased social styles are told they have imposter syndrome.

This article from IOSH (Institution of Occupational Safety and Health) makes the same point:

And Pam Walaski puts it really well:

This piece from the BBC suggests that imposter syndrome makes us better at our jobs because it encourages us to put extra effort into our interpersonal connections. I’m yet to be convinced. Putting effort into our interpersonal relations is important, but I think this reflects the dysfunction described above – the environments where we feel imposter syndrome less often are the environments created by people who put in more interpersonal effort and don’t insist that everyone conforms to the dominant cultural paradigm

Fundamentally, I’m convinced that imposter syndrome and psychological safety are intertwined, if not aspects of the same phenomenon. The more psychologically safe we feel, the less likely we are to feel like an imposter who’s going to be “found out” (the implication being that there are interpersonal consequences of being found out). Not only that, but the presence of psychological safety means we’re more likely to actually ask for help, admit our mistakes and develop the competencies in the workplace that mean we overcome any imposter syndrome.

 And in that same vein, this is worth a listen. Many people, especially women, and more specifically African-American women, suffer high levels of microaggression in the workplace. This is a great episode of “The Introverted Loud Mouth” discussing that.

And this is really worth a watch. Just 3 minutes long, and really powerful. ‘All the Little Things’, written and directed by Meena Ayittey and co-produced by BADLANDs and Great Guns, captures the nuances of microaggressions in the workplace, and highlights the cumulative harm they cause. 


Check out this Twitter thread by Ben Armstrong – it’s a great example of when doing the “right” thing doesn’t mean adhering to company policy. 

Here’s a great article in The Atlantic about inclusion and diversity in higher education, particularly in mathematics, and Federico Ardila-Mantilla, a professor at San Francisco State University. “Through language, through class policies, through an environment of respect, curiosity, and mutual encouragement, he communicated that everyone had room to succeed.” I can’t do it justice here – definitely worth a read!

This is a good piece about continuous improvement and “adaptive leadership” in education settings, from the ASCD: the authors highlight 6 key behaviours and strategies for education leaders to take:

1. Forge a Collective Purpose
2. Use a Compass, Not a Map
3. Develop Dispositions
4. Build a Culture of Trust
5. Work in the “Goldilocks” Zone
6. Buffer Teachers from Conflicting Initiatives

Listen to this great episode of “Safety On Tap” with Andrew Barrett, joined by First Officer Bogomir Glavan and First Officer Nicholas Peterson from American Airlines Learning and Improvement Team. This episode discusses Safety II in practice: how to operationalise learning from day-to-day activities, not just from mistakes and incidents. Every single flight is different, so what we learn from each flight is different. And in reference to “cockpit culture” that we discussed in a previous newsletter, how do we ensure that second-in-command folks learn from the experiences of leaders? And how do leaders (or captains in this case) ensure that they provide the space for first officers to have the opportunity to learn?

I’m a massive fan of Elizabeth Day’s “How To Fail” podcast, and in this episode, Elizabeth’s guest is the incredible Brené Brown, who i’m also a huge fan of! Brené and Elizabeth talk about the failure of her first book, failure to prize consistency over intensity and her multiple failed hobbies ‘where buying the supplies was more fun than the actual hobby.’

Research and Opinion
 Here’s a great student thesis from the University of Twente in The Netherlands, by Aninka Spekle. The effect of Product Owner (a role in Agile teams) behaviour on the observed versus perceived psychological safety of Agile team members. Measurement of psychological safety was via examining the below factors from video recordings of sprint retrospectives and other Agile ceremonies:

  • Voice behaviours
  • Defensive Voice behaviours
  • Silence Behaviours (non-verbal)
  • Defensive Silence behaviours (non-verbal)
  • Collaboration behaviours
  • Unsupportive behaviours
  • Learning & Improvement Oriented behaviours
  • Familiarity behaviours
  • Neutral behaviours

The research, unsurprisingly, showed the importance of the behaviour of Product Owners in its impact on team psychological safety, and the resultant effectiveness of Agile ceremonies such as retrospectives.

And this is a very insightful piece of research, by Dide van Eck, Laura Dobusch and Marieke van den Brink of Radboud University, again in The Netherlands, about organisational inclusion, and how inclusion programmes are implicitly based in high-wage contexts – “professional” contexts, rather than low-wage or “low-skilled” contexts. It’s a very good point, and one that we should address.

Things to do and try:
This is great – A playbook for managing & leading in difficult times & crises, by Lena Reinhard. Lena is a highly experienced leader in tech, and this is a great example of a very actionable, usable playbook for leaders in times of crisis. This sort of playbook is incredibly valuable for those cases where we suffer “amygdala hijacking” and need to act quickly but rationally. There is even a message template for communicating important information to teams and organisations. Bookmark this for the next time there’s a crisis!


This week’s poem:

Why I Wake Early, by Mary Oliver

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light–
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

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