Confucius' spin on the Golden Rule, "Don't do unto others what you don't want others to do unto you," aptly applies to triggering impostor syndrome among your employees.

Described as a fusion of feelings of inadequacy and a fear that others will discover that one does not belong in the position that one occupies, impostor syndrome is an experience with which many people, including entrepreneurs, can relate. But how may entrepreneurs inadvertently trigger impostor syndrome among employees? There are some ways you can increase your employees' confidence, sense of belonging, and avoid making them feel like impostors.

Impostor syndrome is often described in the popular press as a "me" issue, as suggested by the oft-promoted strategies of building one's self-esteem and reciting positive affirmations to counter its effects. The possibility that environments may be triggering impostor feelings is not often entertained. The productivity of your employees, however, may be impacted not by impostor syndrome, but rather by their impostorization. Impostorization is the term I use to refer to the policies, practices, and seemingly innocuous interactions in environments that either make or intend to make individuals question their intelligence, competence, and sense of belonging.

As entrepreneurs, impostorization may come in the types of questions that you tend to be asked by venture capitalists if you are a female versus a male entrepreneur. A study of the Q&A interactions between prominent VCs and entrepreneurs published in 2018 in the Academy of Management Journal entitled "We Ask Men to Win and Women Not to Lose: Closing the Gender Gap in Startup Funding" found that men tended to get more promotion-oriented questions (i.e., achievement, advancement) while women got more prevention-oriented questions (i.e., safety, vigilance). The difference in the types of questions explained why female entrepreneurs received five times less funding than their male counterparts.

If you are a female entrepreneur, the well-established differences in funding access may lead you to question your competence and potential for success, and make you feel like an impostor in the field of entrepreneurship. These impostor feelings, however, may not stem from personal deficiencies, but rather the environment -- specifically, the seemingly harmless questions that suggest your focus should be on protecting against loss rather than promoting achievement.   

While it may be challenging to avoid impostorization by VCs, clients, and other entities with whom you interact, as entrepreneurs you can do unto your employees as you would like others to do unto you. Here are three tips to help you avoid impostorizing employees:

1. Provide balanced feedback.

When discussing performance, don't focus only on areas that need improvement. Identify things that the employee does well and emphasize that their accomplishments are a result of internal factors such as their skills, work ethic, and competence. By making these internal attributions for their success, you can help employees avoid attributing it to external factors such as luck (which is what impostor syndrome seeks to do).

2. Ensure pay equity across employees.

Despite federal legislation that requires equal pay for equal work, research finds that pay disparities persist not only between men and women, but also between women from different ethnic groups. Similar to the example on VC funding differences, employees may question their value and sense of belonging if their work is equal to their counterparts but their compensation is not.

3. Properly pronounce your employees' names.

A seemingly harmless way that employers impostorize employees is by anglicizing their name or insisting that they use a name that is easier to pronounce. Research published in Ethnography and Education in 2021 found that individuals' names and the distinctive way in which they may pronounce it are tied to their social and cultural identity. Employees may question their sense of belonging and feel like impostors when they are asked to alter their name and pronounce it in a way that is not aligned with who they are.

Recognizing what employees do well, ensuring equal pay for equal work, and embracing employees' identities -- including the way they choose to pronounce their name -- are easy steps to help develop an inclusive environment and avoid impostorization in your business.