Imposter Syndrome

I arrive onsite, and start my engagement by asking, watching and listening. As the days proceed, the horrible feeling creeps up on me: this is so complex, and like nothing I have dealt with before! For those of us with technical or expert backgrounds, this feeling of “the empty toolkit” can be scary. And so we fake it. Problem solved – for the moment.

As I shift my focus to what I don’t know, I feel more and more ill-equipped. And what if they see my uncertainty? Oh, they’re sure to discover I’m a fraud…

“The impostor syndrome or fraud syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments… Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.” — wikipedia

What was I thinking, to take this job? I actually know so little about the situation, and surely they hired me for my expertise? Fear shrinks my perspective, until all of my most powerful tools are forgotten … perhaps because they don’t look like “solutions”.

At AgileCoachCamps in France and Germany, I asked coaches: “What are the assets of the Change Agent?” This shift in focus brought puzzlement, and then a flood of answers, like:

courage trust self-confidence being in the moment
appreciation patience facilitation skills openness to all kinds of people
experiences listening stories to tell patterns that could work
curiosity empathy neutrality commitment to catalysis
encouragement creativity a fresh eye modeling “fail-to-learn”
transparency energy beginner’s mind belief that people can find their own solutions

I note that this shift, from feeling inadequate to wondering at how much we have to offer, is supported by a shift from solving problems to modeling and inviting new ways of being. All of the assets above are most effective when they are practiced by the coach or change agent. That is: to tell is not enough. the coach must BE.

Suddenly, I was struck by a new image, and grabbed for a pen.

No matter which concrete new tools are introduced, the most powerful support for change comes from what people experience in the change agent’s presence and communications. A congruent change agent may or may not explain their strange new ideas… but they will always be living these ideas in their interactions, all day long.

Which makes the change agent a kind of virus, doesn’t it? I enter the system, pierce the boundary, and by my behaviour inject regular doses of transparency, trust, experimentation, and so on … which may (or may not) continue to work in my absence.

This metaphor quickly raises for me some questions:

  • What are the ethics of being paid to work in a viral manner?
  • How can transparency about my way of working help?
  • How congruent am I? How do I know?
  • How can I turn the natural systemic “immune” response to people’s advantage?
  • How can my injections create antibodies against a return to former ways?
  • What can I actually promise?
  • When is it time to withdraw, and how?
  • What are the risks of bringing the virus from inside the system?

And now, your turn: what does this metaphor bring to your understanding of change agent work? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(Thanks to Armin Schubert and Swen Gonsberg who helped list the Assets, and inspired my leap to the new metaphor!)

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