Impostor Syndrome, Innovation’s Barrier

At a recent work retreat, folks in my division engaged in a rich conversation about innovation. Like so many other organizations, we are searching for ways to combat the effects of COVID-19, so our boss challenged us to be more innovative about our work. He showed us Linda Hill’s TED Talk, “How to manage for more collective creativity.” I loved the talk, but something hit me. I wondered how impostor syndrome affects innovation.

I told the team that, to me, impostor syndrome can be a serious barrier to innovation. If innovation happens when people bring new ideas and/or approaches to the table, then someone who feels that they shouldn’t be at the table in the first place will have a hard time. Amy Weinrieb wrote that innovation happens when folks are willing to confront “uncertainty, risk and failure.” But you have to believe in yourself to confront uncertainty, risk and failure.

Without belief, people sit on their ideas while those who do believe in themselves enjoy the process of taking their organizations or communities to new levels. And, of course, they’re most likely to get credit for their innovative thinking.

Photo by Luis Araujo

Three thoughts come to mind about how impostor syndrome blocks innovation. First, going back to Weinrieb, it’s a burden to not feel certain, to take risks and to think about failing. I truly get this. In my career, I have asked myself, “How crazy and unqualified am I going to look if this fails?” or “Am I the right person for this?”

Second, you can see a correlation between impostor syndrome and a fixed mindset, that space where people tend to put each other in a box. Imagine, for example, having documented success at your company, yet constantly having your credibility questioned because you didn’t graduate from the “right” schools. If folks tell you long enough that your educational path prevents your advancement, then their fixed mindset becomes part for your impostor syndrome. On the other hand, growth mindset says that your alma maters don’t matter so much as your will to learn and advance.

That takes me to the third thought — locus of control. One of my biggest life victories is having transitioned from having an external locus of control to an internal locus of control. With an external locus of control, I felt like an impostor because I thought that fate kept my creative ideas from landing in the right places. As I shifted to an internal locus of control, I took more risks and got more vocal about my ideas. Admittedly, I still lick my wounds when my ideas don’t land the way I want them to; but I’m a heck of a lot more resilient and creative.

To be sure, this intersection of impostor syndrome and innovation can be influenced by culture and leadership. A rigid, hierarchal environment, where leaders insist on being the center of command and control, can definitely stifle creativity. On the other side, an organization or community where the culture and leadership are more organic, as Gayle Avery calls it, can be a breeding ground for creativity because influence comes from the ranks. And let’s not count out the effect that diversity and inclusion have on innovation. Diversity and inclusion invite creativity from multiple perspectives.

At our great retreat, I let my colleagues know, from a creative’s perspective, that innovation is hard work. It takes courage and persistence, and leaders must have some sense of trust and adventure. But giving people the space to create can both invite innovation while helping impostor syndrome fade away among the organization or community’s most valuable resource — its people.

I write about identity and value. Opinions do not reflect the views of orgs with which I am affiliated.

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