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I am a software engineer in the US.

One of the engineers in our team has a bad case of impostor syndrome, despite being among the most talented software engineers I've ever had the pleasure of working with. I don't mind the self-deprecating humor (as if I could - I make these jokes fairly frequently), but I do genuinely want to help him - the frequent apologies and self-blaming lead me to believe that he does, indeed, fully believe what he says (and isn't saying it just for humor). He is senior (and I am not), but I'm not quite sure that matters here.

So, the question is: how can I help my coworker's impostor syndrome? I realize that I can't hope to fix it, but I do sure hope I can help in some meaningful way. I make it a point to absolve him of any self-inflicted guilt he doesn't deserve and to praise when praise is due, but I'm not sure if there's a piece of the puzzle I'm missing here.

Edit: To address some very good points raised:

  • The problem is not his boss - we report to the same manager and work within the same team; from what I can tell, everyone can tell he is very competent and probably works himself a bit too hard (risk of burnout, etc.)
  • This is not (usually) a customer-facing position. Nothing too formal is typically involved - we're a small company, but not small enough that developers have to talk to customers on a regular basis.
  • Some apologies are for things that aren't his fault (or aren't faults at all) - for instance, recently he apologized for having implemented a feature that could need a workaround in case something else, completely unrelated, goes wrong. Bear in mind that the feature design is not at fault and wasn't even his own to begin with; that was a team decision.
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    Unclear why this was downvoted, it's a reasonable question, so +1. – darkside Jan 14 at 20:13
  • @darkside Thanks for the reassurance - many things in the universe are indeed very unclear and I would say a downvote on this question isn't that weird, in the grand scheme of things. – osuka_ Jan 14 at 20:14
  • What have you tried so far? How can you be confident that this is a case of impostor syndrome? – DarkCygnus Jan 14 at 20:42
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    thanks, just asking questions to get more info, so users can answer better – DarkCygnus Jan 14 at 20:53
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    You might tell him Neil Gaiman's story about meeting Neil Armstrong. – John R. Strohm Jan 14 at 21:50
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  1. Check who gets these apologies. Does the senior report to an overbearing boss or have to deal with clients frequently? There are many reasons to apologize constantly (if only since apologizing is free and therefore worth trading for anything with a value greater than free). I know people who apologize for everything as a relationship management tool. Certain people feel guilty receiving many apologies and that can be used to one's advantage.

  2. Check that his apologies are about his code/work product. Is he apologizing for his software work or for other things, such as misunderstanding a requirement, taking a meeting off track, pushing back too hard, etc? Talented engineers often have deficiencies in these areas. I often do not code what the specs intend. This is one area where I apologize regularly to smooth things over. Why? I apologize, get the clarification, and am then set free to go back to my work. The apology is free, so I am fine issuing it as many times as required. He might also be apologizing for not getting back to emails.

  3. Check that his apologies are not for genuine screw ups. He can be as talented as Woz, but if he broke the build, didn't do the merge properly, or let a bug into prod, he did screw up. A lot of developer job work has nothing to do with writing code and those tasks are mostly admin not talent tasks.

Now that that is out of the way, my answer is to look for small moments of high performance which can be praised. Does he complete more sprint points (if you are using Scrum) than other developers? Point that out. Does everyone ask him for help? Maybe track questions asked per developer for a week. Point that out. This is moving beyond praise when due and spending a bit of time to find interesting numerical trivia which would fluff the ego.

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Matthew makes some really good points, but this might not be explicitly related to his work. There may be things going on at home or in his far past that cause him to act this way.

If this is true, you might not be able to help him out, unfortunately. However, you might be able to get him to understand this should not be normal behavior for someone as talented as you say he is. I'd suggest getting him into an informal setting, like having drinks/"a beer" after work. This might be a little awkward if there's a major difference in age or aren't the same gender, but reassure him it's just to talk. You might get a better response if you say you just want to get more into the mindset of a senior dev and want to talk shop.

Once you get him "loosened up" a little and more familiar with you at the "informal meeting", gracefully change the topic to his impostor syndrome and how you think it's detrimental to him. Don't berate him, since that's only going to press it further into his mind, but elaborate on your own experience with similar situations. Explain how you worked out of it and how you are doing better personally and professionally without the self-deprecation and constant apologizing. Since you say you make self-deprecating remarks "frequently", you might explain the difference between his remarks and yours.

Granted, he might not take it well, but if you don't try, which it sounds like you're willing to do, you won't know how it pans out. Maybe he needs that nudge to seek professional help or simply needs someone to help him talk through it.

Doing it outside of work helps to keep it away from gossipers as well as helps him understand that you aren't trying to assert power over him. I'd also suggest you read more about impostor syndrome and how to get out of it, so you know how best to talk to him. You don't want to shove a homegrown pamphlet at him and say "here's how to fix you", but having some information handy to back up your suggestions wouldn't hurt.

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First, there's a fine line between being critical of oneself and one's work. The latter is very healthy and probably a big reason why he is so competent. Make sure you're not trying to correct something that doesn't need correcting.

Second, third person compliments are often much more effective. People can dismiss first person compliments as insincere flattery, but it is much harder to dismiss something said to someone else like, "Bob understands that code much better than the rest of us, you should direct your question to him."

The third thing that's helpful is to show you're in the same boat and would have made the same decisions, especially if he respects your skills. Say things like, "Yes, that workaround could be needed, but this design is much simpler, and I agree it's a good decision to wait to see if we actually need it before we add complexity."

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