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Expectation setting for returners and avoiding ‘imposter syndrome’.

Expectations and how to avoid ‘imposter syndrome’

At How Do You Do It, we have always worked with parents returning to work after an extended period of leave.  For the last 3 years, we have been working with groups of returners all of whom have had between 3 and 18 years doing other things aside from the profession they trained in, from raising children, caring for elderly relatives through to running their own businesses.  They have all been amazing women with fantastic and diverse skills developed in a range of different ways.

Three things have struck me though and although highlighted in the groups we meet, I think they can apply to all of us.

Firstly, the tendency to underplay or dismiss the skills built during their ‘gap’ as if somehow they are not as valid.  When I first worked for myself my work took time to build up which worked well as I was the mother of two young children so I had time to spend with them too.  I also volunteered with a charity in my town.  Undoubtedly my negotiation and persuasion skills were developed during this time.  Being on a committee of other volunteers, where you have no official title which either confers authority or deference to others, means you have to think of other ways to influence.  Negotiating with a 2-year-old can also push your skill base.

Secondly, this leads to the oft-reported ‘imposter syndrome’.  The returners will often feel that they fluked the interview process, got a job and any minute now they will be found out.   People around them keep telling them that they are doing a good job and have amazing skills but these are easily dismissed.

Thirdly the avoidance around conversations about what is expected of them and setting clear objectives.  This is linked to the first two points.  If I talk about what is expected I will be exposed as I won’t meet the bar that has been set.  I won’t remember how to do the things that are asked of me and my ‘gap’ away won’t help.

So, what do you do about this?  Our work is done in groups for several reasons.  It allows individuals to realise they are not alone, that others feel like this too and this can bring some perspective.  It allows people to voice their concerns and get support from others.  If you are not in the situation of being in a group, identify others you can talk to whether in work or outside.

Have conversations with your line manager and other key people about what is expected of you.  Establish some objectives for your return.  If you are part of a programme then the time is naturally defined but if you have returned to a permanent role then set them for a shorter initial period.  What is the worst that can happen?  Their expectations are far higher than your abilities – better to know this early than to struggle through and it gives you a chance to do something about it.  However, in my experience, this doesn’t happen and is the other way around, with the returner expecting too much of themselves and having this conversation relieves a lot of pressure.

Finally, honestly appraise the skills required to deliver against your objectives with what you have got.  If there is a gap, work out how you can address it and then discuss it with others.  In my experience, the gaps fall into 2 buckets; technical knowledge and IT skills both of which are easily addressed with training, setting aside time for reading around the subject or coaching from a peer.  Often skills developed during a ‘gap’ aid this development, for example, perspective on what is important or experience in other environments.

I am not saying that the above is easy especially when confidence can feel quite low.  It takes some personal bravery and honesty and ultimately being kind to yourself.  The returners we work with who communicate openly without avoiding ‘difficult’ conversations find their confidence and capability flourish.

Claire Hodgson

EMEA Director

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