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From Impostor Syndrome to Collective Intelligence

Why do brilliant and accomplished people suffer from imposter syndrome? In my experience it’s because they believe that others think that they know more than they actually do and they live in fear of being found out that they’re deficient. This is reinforced in a workplace where job titles often carry with them the expectation that your expertise is commensurate with the complexity of the job description. But how many of you reading this ever knew everything required to do a job for which you were hired? Don’t we usually discover while performing the job multiple areas of ignorance that require us to learn how to cope with novel situations? And do we feel like impostors when we resolve those issues?

Impostor syndrome has roots in the competition inherent in the university-corporate-meritocracy-complex which places great emphasis on siloed expertise. This is a holdover from an earlier age of thinking when it was possible for one individual (nearly always a man) to know enough to solve big problems through expertise alone. The magnitude and interconnected nature of things like climate change, global governance, crime, addiction, authoritarianism, etc., have long since put the lie to that that well-worn path. Sadly, many remain stuck in this mode of thinking even when they recognize its inability to cope with today’s messy problems.

“Solutions to complex problems take many dissimilar minds and points of view to design, so we have to do that together, linking up with as many other us-twos as we can to form networks of dynamic interaction. I’m not offering expert answers, only different questions and ways of looking at things.” ~ Tyson Yunkaporta in Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World

The antidote to impostor syndrome is not acquiring more knowledge. It’s learning to connect the knowledge of disparate people together into something useful for solving complex problems. If you work in a siloed organization, don’t ask how to break down the siloes – ask how to build bridges between them so that people naturally want to step out and contribute their thinking. Help them see that they each hold a part of the whole and, when enough parts get assembled, something better and more useful than individual expertise will come into focus.

A principle of collective intelligence is to make collective knowledge visible. Create ways to honor and reflect what everyone contributes and you begin to tap the genius of collective intelligence. If you build a deeper shared understanding then a fuller picture of whatever your group is working on emerges. That in turn opens up more possibilities for creating the future you’re working towards.


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