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The Scariest Thing About Imposter Syndrome

It’s still October, so I thought I’d continue with more scary things that plague supervisors. We talked about stress last episode, so today I thought I’d dig into one huge cause of stress, Imposter Syndrome. If you’ve ever doubted your abilities as a supervisor or wondered if you should find a job where you don’t have to supervise folks, keep reading.

Last week, I was doing some individual work with someone from the Supervisor Strengths Institute. I asked them what they wanted to focus on, and they said earlier that morning they’d told their supervisor that they were having a crisis of confidence and didn’t think supervising was really in their wheelhouse. I asked why they felt that way, and they mentioned unresolved issues with some members of their team and generally feeling like they were always struggling to stay above water with everything they had to do. Now this wasn’t the first time I’d heard a statement like this. These days, all too many supervisors in Higher Ed are doubting their abilities. This is stressful and damaging to those individuals, but it’s also impacting our field.

Most of us would call this phenomenon Imposter Syndrome. You’re a supervisor and don’t think you have what it takes to be a good one, so you feel like a fraud. We’ve all had bad supervisors before. And you know we know that the whole Strengths philosophy is that you’re great at somethings but not others. So yes, it’s definitely possible being a supervisor isn’t what you’re meant to do. If that’s the case, then why exactly is this all so scary?

Let’s start with an analogy, shall we. I think if you’re working in Higher Ed, especially in Student Affairs, you consider yourself to be something of an armchair psychologist, right? You wonder what’s going on deep beneath the surface of your students and staff when they don’t show up on time, drop the ball, or are struggling. You definitely spend time wondering and even trying to broach those issues so maybe you can help them get back on track. You love being able to solve those mysteries and help folks grow and develop.

Well let’s say a campus counselor position is open and they haven’t been able to fill it. Someone comes to you and says, “Brenda, you’re so good at helping folks and making them feel better. We really need someone in this position right away, and I think you’d be able to help so many more people this way.” Obviously, you’re flattered and there seems to be a need. You know something about the job from your work, TV, etc. Maybe you even have experience going to a therapist yourself. You feel like you should be able to figure things out, so you decide to do it. Now for those of you who ARE campus counselors and are thinking, “Wait a BLEEPING minute there, Anne. You can’t just put anyone in that position. They need to have specific credentials and training.” Just hold onto your horses, I’m getting there.

So now you’re a campus counselor. All these students are coming to you with their problems, some of which go far beyond your experience and comfort level. You suddenly realize that you’re in over your head. Sure, you have a great bedside manner so people feel comfortable sharing, but you realize you just don’t have the expertise to handle many of the issues they’re dealing with. You can handle some situations – like the ones you did in your previous role that just require listening and helping them better understand their options or resources on campus. But you have no idea what to do beyond that when students present with anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders. You quickly realize you are a fraud and absolutely shouldn’t have that role. And in that situation, you’d be absolutely correct. Campus psychologists, therapists, and counselors undergo rigorous training and years of practice before they get their degree and become certified. You don’t have any of those, so you shouldn’t be doing that job even though you’re pretty familiar with what a counselor does.

But in this hypothetical situation, are you even at fault here? Sure, maybe you should have known better, but who the BLEEP encouraged you to apply and then hired you knowing you didn’t have what you needed to be successful? That person 100% set you up for failure, in part because they were stressed about not having anyone in the role. They knowingly threw you into that role without making sure you had the training and skills you needed to be successful or providing them after the fact.

Now in that example, mental health professionals are required to have specific training and certifications to practice. That’s the law. Supervisors aren’t so lucky. There’s no training requirement that happens prior to a supervisor jumping in and taking charge of a team. The vast majority of supervisors are chosen, not because they’re skilled at supervising, but because they’re good at what they do. During the interview, you might have been asked your philosophy on supervising. Since you had a basic understanding of what they do and have had supervisors yourself, you could give a decent answer. But even though there are no legal requirements regarding supervisor training, the folks who hired you set you up for failure if they didn’t give you any training or support once you started. And let’s be honest, when we finally hire someone for an open position, we’re usually so excited we can stop doing parts of their job, we cross our fingers and hope they can figure things out themselves.

Let’s jump back to the Institute participant I mentioned early. I told them that realistically, they had no accurate information on which to assess themselves. They had been thrown into the position without the training they needed to be successful. Quite frankly, most supervisors today have too much work to handle without even factoring trying to figure out how to be a supervisor. Add on the supervisor role and folks are guaranteed to fail. No wonder this person felt overwhelmed and that it wasn’t a good fit for them. But instead of blaming the system, this person was blaming themselves and their abilities.

Now if that individual HAD been trained and developed the right skills, might they still have come to the same conclusion? Absolutely. Some people aren’t the best fit for a supervisor role, but there’s no way to tell that unless you’ve had the opportunities to learn what supervisors are actually supposed to do and develop the skills necessary to do those things. The system we have now just sets folks up for failure. When things aren’t going well, you feel like you’re the problem. But you’re not the problem.

Being a supervisor is a complex job, that requires training, the right systems, and the right skills to be effective. For example, do you know what the four core roles of a manager are? Go ahead, shout them out. I’ll wait….

If you didn’t know the answer, why would you? You have 1,000 things to do. If your role as supervisor isn’t a priority to the folks who hired you, that’s not where you’re going focus your energy. FYI – the four roles are recruitment, engagement, performance management, and development. If just hearing that made you feel even more overwhelmed, again remind yourself that no one has ever told you this OR made it a priority that you understand it and develop skills and systems to be effective in those roles. Quite frankly, the folks who hired you and asked you your philosophy on supervision most likely don’t know what those roles are either, so they had no real basis for assessing your answer. Why would you be good at supervising if you’ve never been told how to do it?

That’s scary because things are stressful enough without you doubting your abilities and blaming yourself when things aren’t going well. If you’re struggling, it’s most likely not because you lack the ability to supervise. It’s because you lack the training and support you need to be effective. It’s far too easy to blame ourselves, especially when we look around and think we see other’s being successful in the role. When we do, we start wishing we were more like Chris or Pat and we start to do things like they’re doing them. The problem with that is two-fold. First, just because they seem like they’re succeeding where you’re not, doesn’t mean they are. It just reinforces your belief that there’s something wrong with you. Second, even if they are succeeding, they have different talents than you do. Trying to do what they do is setting yourself up to fail again, which you’ll think proves you’re no good at being a supervisor.

The other half of this imposter problem is that practically everyone in Higher Ed is being asked to do too much with too few resources. Just for a moment, imagine if your supervisor showed up and said over the course of the next year, your workload was going to double. How many of you nearly had a panic attack just thinking about it? For those of you who have been working in Higher Ed awhile, you know that in the past 10 or 15 years the workload for everyone has doubled at the very least. Realistically, it’s probably increased even more than that. If you’re relatively new to the field, you might be surprised to know it hasn’t always been like it is now – constantly fighting fires and juggling an ever-increasing workload.

So, what changed? Sure, our understanding of student development and how we support students has somewhat evolved, but really most of that increase comes from fears about enrollment and retention. The lower enrollment and retention rates go the more panicked institutions get. That means cutting budgets and throwing more programs at students. I’ve mentioned how Higher Ed folks LOVE a new initiative in previous episodes. Most of what you’re doing now, started off as an exciting new initiative that may or may not have accomplished its intended goals. Unfortunately, you’re so busy you don’t have time to assess it, so you just keep doing everything and being asked to add on more.

I don’t care how much you know or how sharp your skills are, if you have too much to realistically do, you’re not going to be successful. The individual I was talking to had so much of their own work, even if they weren’t a supervisor, they wouldn’t be able to stay on top of it. Now we have folks judging themselves and feeling inadequate both about being a supervisor AND doing their job. This is not a recipe for success. Even with quality supervisor training and the time to develop the right skills, until you learn to prioritize and get the amount of work you and your team have under control, you’re still not going to feel like you’re up to the job. But again, this is a systemic problem, not a YOU problem. I mean I guess it IS your problem, but not because there’s something wrong or lacking with you.

When people like you aren’t given the training and support you need to successfully lead your team and prioritize the work in front of you, you’re going to feel overwhelmed and perhaps like an imposter. That’s really the issue. When you think you’re the problem, you don’t think to question the system or fight to get yourself the training and support you need. If you’re a supervisor, prioritize supervisor training for yourself. The more you know about supervising, the more effective you’ll be and the less stressful it will be for you. If you’re supervising other supervisors, prioritize training for yourself AND them. Push back to create a more reasonable workload and empower your team to do the same. We can help you do that. I’ve talked about the Supervisor Strengths Institute on many occasions, but we also do individual coaching and training for teams. If you’re not sure where to start, shoot me an email at Or you can set up an appointment with me here -

The field of Higher Education is losing far too many talented professionals because folks like you aren’t being given the right training and support. Maybe you’re considering leaving the field yourself. Instead, we need to give people the knowledge and experiences that will set them up for success. If you feel like you’re not getting what you need, fight for it. But whatever you do, don’t judge your ability to be a supervisor based on your experience so far. Push to get the training you need, so you can start developing the right skills and systems to be successful. Do the same for your folks who supervise others. And until next time, stay strong.

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