This is it for now, friends! Thank you for coming along this journey with API and me — though we might check in later this year to see how your leadership journey is going. Fill out this form for updates on the program.

This leadership reset series wraps this week with the topic of imposter syndrome, aka the inner critic: The thing many of us didn’t even know had a name, but silently suffered from for years. The thing that mistakenly centers ourselves as a problem to be fixed, as a patient to be diagnosed. 

This is all wrong, y’all. The workplace concept of imposter syndrome exists because of women and people of color entering the white, male-dominated workforce, an environment biased toward white men. 

We’ve got to stop telling women they have imposter syndrome. We’ve got to stop displaying behaviors in our news organizations that are exclusionary of the cultures and characters of people of color. If we want this to be an industry where women and people of color want to work — and we need them in our news organizations — we have simply got to stop.

 The Harvard Business Review expressed it well in 2021: “The answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals, but to create an environment that fosters a number of different leadership styles and where diversity of racial, ethnic, and gender identities is viewed as just as professional as the current model.”

The Challenge

You just got lucky. You’re a fraud and folks will find out. You’re the youngest, the only woman, the only person of color. You don’t have a degree. You don’t belong. You don’t actually know things. You can’t count the microaggressions targeted toward you. You’ve been bullied, gaslit and dismissed. You’ve experienced public failure — repeatedly. 

Listen, I’ve been there, and here’s what I’ve learned. The voice inside your head, it’s a lie. And your inner critic may be kin to mine and flare up every time new responsibility comes your way. That’s okay. The questioning can be healthy, showing you care and want to do a good job. But it can also be unhealthy, leading you to spiral, to disengage and to burn out. 

Imposter syndrome is a systemic issue, which makes it a DEIB issue, which means it can largely feel out of our circle of influence. So while many of us wait for our organizations to become continually inclusive regardless of leadership changes and staff turnover, we need a way to subvert our inner critic, and we’ll do it the same way resilience coaches in our active duty military are trained to do it. 

The Assignment: Scripting real-time resilience

Resilience is our capacity to be robust, even excellent, amid enormous stress and change. 

Real-time resilience is a strategy taught by psychologist Dr. Karen Reivich at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a tool that pivots counterproductive thinking and is used in a moment of adversity. The goal is simple (and familiar for us journalists): Accuracy. 

This assignment is for you to proactively address the voices in your head that tell you inaccuracies, create doubt and stifle confidence. 

Make it happen

To use real-time resilience, you just need to know the “sentence-starter” prompts to deploy at the moment you hear your inner critic. You can also use these sentence starters proactively by anticipating when you most feel like a fraud and creating responses to those thoughts before you ever need them. 

  • What kind of thoughts do we hear from our inner critic? 
    • No one would trust you with their story.
    • I can’t believe someone trusted me to make this decision. 
    • I bring no value to this conversation.
    • [add yours]
    • [add yours]
    • [add yours]

Okay, now that you’ve aired all those lies, let’s get to the “sentence starters.” These short phrases can help you pivot counterproductive thinking into a more effective, realistic response. 

  • Evidence: That’s not true because… (Tip: Be as specific and detailed as possible.)
  • Reframe: A more helpful way to see this is… (Tip: Use optimism strategically.See it in action in this clip from The Pursuit of Happyness.)
  • Plan: If x happens, I will y… (Tip: This is a contingency plan.)

Take it further

I want you to use this to reset how you see yourself and your value in your news organization. Because we are all susceptible to the disbeliever in our own minds, I also want you to add this to your leadership toolkit as a way to help those around you overcome their own inner critic. 

Let me encourage you to share this tool with folks in your orbit and to even use it in a future 1:1 with your direct manager or a direct report. (Final confession: One of the best things I ever did for my journalism career was come clean to a senior editor when I felt overwhelmed with not belonging in meetings with print editors. S/O Johnny Bis for calling out my value and giving me the internal script I still use to kick my inner critic to the curb.)

Share with your network

You also might be interested in:

  • This is a column on how to measure well-being for yourself and your organization. By the end, you’ll have a clear direction and quantitative ways to chart a healthy path forward for your journalists.

  • Experts define moral injury as the suffering that comes from witnessing, perpetrating or failing to prevent events that violate one’s own deeply held moral beliefs and values. It is not classified as a mental illness, but it can lead to depression, substance abuse or burnout, which is one reason news managers need to understand the phenomenon of moral injury — and ways to address it or head it off.

  • For many newsrooms, changing the systems that protect unhealthy culture could be a few sustained decisions away from reality.