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Overheard on Text: Imposter Syndrome

He’s 30. She’s 57. Here’s their text thread on overcoming generational differences at work.

By Duncan Magidson and Marci Alboher | Feb 23, 2024

graphic stylized to look like text messages reading (overheard on text" with Marci Alboher and Duncan Magidson

As colleagues from different generations (x/millennial), we’ve been leading talks and workshops sharing our insights about working across generations – what we call “cogeneration.” As we plan, we’re usually texting furiously, sharing ideas and reflections. So we thought we’d give others a peek into what those text convos look like. For this edition, we dove into vulnerability, power dynamics and imposter syndrome.

Duncan Magidson (CoGenerate Digital Communications Specialist): Hey Marci, yesterday I was talking to some teenaged leaders who are working alongside older adults. One of the barriers to effective cogeneration we talked about was imposter syndrome. I don’t think those feelings are at all exclusive to young people, but it got me thinking again about power dynamics. 

Uncomfortable, rigid power structures are one of the biggest issues we face in intergenerational workplaces and it’s something that comes up a lot in our workshops. In a world where the default assumption is that the older person is always in charge, it can be so hard to create a level playing field. What can we do to tackle those discrepancies?

Marci Alboher (CoGenerate VP of Narrative Change): This is a juicy topic! I’m glad you acknowledged that adults (of any age) also face imposter syndrome. But I see the particularity of that for younger leaders especially.

There are two things you raise here and I wonder if we can tease them out a bit.

On the topic of imposter syndrome, one approach, of course, is “fake it till you make it.” But I feel like there’s a counterintuitive tack that might be more effective. What about taking off the confidence mask and admitting to vulnerability? Saying something like: “I may look like I have it all figured out, but this is all kind of new. Do you ever feel out of your depth?” I promise you there is no one who hasn’t!

The dirty little secret is that many adults are intimidated by young leaders who appear to have it all figured out (often at the very same time the adults are fearing they could be sliding into irrelevance). So if the young person is willing to admit to feelings of insecurity, my guess is that unless they do it with a total jerk, they will receive a kind and possibly helpful reaction. It’s even possible the adult will then reveal her own insecurity. I wonder what a conversation like that might do to the power dynamic in that setting?

Duncan: So much of the tension we sometimes see in these relationships is about communication: one-way communication that isn’t mutual, lack of communication on both ends, or just downright bad, unproductive, combative communication. And I totally agree with your prescription: being open about your insecurities and just naming it goes such a long way.

But I would love to see that operationalized so that the onus isn’t on the individuals (especially young people). If you can, make it a policy to talk about age-related power dynamics regularly, including in conversations around DEI.

One of the insidious things about imposter syndrome is that it’s inherently hard to be vulnerable about (it can make you feel like even more of an imposter🥸.) I think it is so powerful to make these kinds of discussions the norm, rather than something you only bring up when you already feel uncomfortable.

Marci: I can commit to that Duncan. Both to practicing it with you and with others! But you and I are somewhat advantaged here in that our work is all about this kind of deep relationship-building. I wonder how we can normalize that kind of naming of a power dynamic in working relationships. How can we get people to feel safe enough to say that 1) I recognize there’s a power imbalance here and I’m the one holding more of that power, and 2) What if part of our working relationship involved revealing to each other something that makes us feel a bit insecure?

This reminds me of something that happened between us. As you know, when I get a speaking invitation, I try to invite a younger colleague to join me — or I hand the opportunity over to them. I know it’s the right thing to do at this stage of my career where I’ve already had so many chances to use my voice. Yet I have to admit that it’s hard to always do it because I truly love public speaking. I think you know where this is going. When you and I were speakers at our friend Ashley’s NYU class, I really took to heart what you said to me afterwards — that we presented so well together, but given that I’m the more experienced one in our pair, you’d like me to practice letting you have more airtime than me in those settings. I thought about that so much after you said it, and I think you were 100% right to make that suggestion.

Duncan: I so appreciate you taking that to heart, Marci! By inviting me along when you get those kinds of speaking invitations, you’re definitely “sharing the power” — and when we think about the best way to share the mic, you’re doing the same thing.

Slight tangent: Here’s a suggestion for an icebreaker question I’m using in a workshop I’m going to help lead in a few weeks (with some of the same teenagers I mentioned before): How does it feel to be your age — and how does it influence your work?

I definitely found that got me thinking — and maybe it will inspire you too. But that might be a new thread entirely. 😜Talk soon!


Read our previous installment of Overheard on Text: Communicating to Build Trust