Dealing with Imposter Syndrome in the workplace

September 1st, 2020 Written by Robert van Kooten

Studies show that up to 70% of people have suffered from or will suffer from Imposter Syndrome at some point in their career. My colleague Clem Pickering and I gave a talk on this subject at the Lean Agile Scotland conference in Edinburgh at the end of last year and got some really great feedback on the talk. 

Both Clem and I have suffered from imposter feelings, although both in different circumstances. A number of years ago, I started a new job after four years in management. It was good to be back at the coal-face (as it were) and initially I was confident that I knew the technologies required from me, I liked the projects and I liked my clients and my team. 

In the four years that I’d been managing teams, technology had moved on and the software being used had changed. I was initially told that the project needed .NET on Windows with SQL servers, but when we started the project, it was actually AWS, Terraform, Ansible – none of which I’d used before. 

I taught myself to use all the different software that I needed and it wasn’t actually that difficult. But the doubts had started to creep into my brain. Would I be able to keep up and guide the client with my limited experience of the specific tools we were using? As it happened, the project went really well! We delivered on time and the client was very happy with the result. Was this testament to my experience, or just a fluke?

I then started another project that involved integration. I was confident with that and had plenty of past experience, but soon realised that the technologies we were using weren’t around five years ago when I had last done it. So again I taught myself a new set of technologies and spent extra time figuring stuff out on my own.  

Again, I was able to apply my experience to new situations and technologies, and the project progressed well. Our engagement was extended multiple times as the client was happy with how we were helping their teams.

All the evidence was there that I was doing a good job that people were happy with. Yet I couldn’t shake this feeling that I wouldn’t be able to keep up, that I was an impostor and it was only a matter of time before I would fall behind and get found out for the fraud I really was.

So what is Imposter Syndrome? 

I think that Imposter Syndrome is something that most people have heard of, but probably don’t know a lot of details about. Do they know how to deal with it when it rears its ugly head, or would they know how to spot the symptoms in a work colleague who could benefit from some support? 

The term was coined in 1978 by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes, after they interviewed 150 high achieving women. It was initially studied in women but further research has suggested that anyone could suffer from the condition. 

In 1985, Dr Clance created the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale to determine which characteristics are present and to what extent.

Research tells us that people who suffer from this psychological condition are usually perfectionists. Having these doubts about your own abilities in work (and outside work) can be very draining mentally and can hold back your career. 

Some incredibly famous people have admitted to suffering from Imposter Syndrome, and we namecheck Albert Einstein, Emma Watson and Tom Hanks in our presentation. You would never think that any of these people doubted themselves as they are so successful in their fields. 

How does it manifest itself?

Impostor Syndrome can take on many guises. Personally, I get performance anxiety, feeling like everyone is watching and one slight misstep will give away that I’m an impostor. I feel like I need to know everything, and pressure myself into trying to “stay one step ahead of everyone else”.

Dr Young identified a number of types of Impostor Syndrome. In our talk we go through identifying and describing each, with specific tips for dealing with each. I recommend you watch the video of our talk at Lean Agile Scotland, but here is a summary of some of our tips.

Balance internal and external validation

Internal validation is you telling yourself you’ve done a good job, while external validation is others telling you. The balance of internal and external validation each person needs is unique. Find out how much of each you need, and ensure you get it. If you need more external validation, it never hurts to ask “how am I doing?” Well, unless the answer is “terrible!” of course!

Understand where the real value is, and focus on that. 

It’s easy to get caught up in trying to maximise every part of your job, but often the real value is with users of a site, or people who receive a piece of information you prepare, etc. What ultimately matters is what these people think of your outputs. It is important to understand all your stakeholders and help them achieve their goals, but for your internal validation focus on the real value you are creating.

Know that feedback, even constructive feedback, isn’t the same as criticism. You can always do better, and no matter how hard you try, perfection can never be attained. Take feedback seriously, but not personally. Most of us are doing a good job, even if we continuously strive for better. Also separate peer feedback from customer feedback. This goes back to the value described above.

What do we do to help Imposter Syndrome at Infinity Works? 

Advocacy scheme 

Studies show that seeking support from outside your workplace, through friends and family, is one of the best ways to conquer these fears. At Infinity Works, we ensure every employee has an advocate to support, coach and mentor (as appropriate) as well as meetings with their team members to find out if they need any support. Every new employee is paired with a more experienced consultant, and meets for a coffee and a chat every few months. This is the perfect opportunity to chat about how the job is going and what challenges you are facing.  

Show and tell 

We encourage consultants to do show and tells about projects they’ve worked on, which could include how they’ve struggled, faced challenges and how they overcame those challenges. It’s great for everyone in the team to share knowledge but also for other employees to see that everyone faces challenges and there will be numerous ways to tackle them. 

Storytelling workshops and speaker training 

We run regular workshops to help consultants gain confidence in their public speaking, whether this is in front of a large conference crowd or in front of a client’s team. This consists of practical tips, ways to structure your talk and delivery, along with chances to practice any talks you’re preparing. 

Kudos 

We encourage people to share other people’s wins on our Kudos Slack channel. It’s always good to appreciate other people’s hard work so this is a company-wide way to do it. It’s always nice to put a smile on someone’s face by recognising that they’ve done a good job. 

Further reading

This website by Dr Valerie Young is very informative for further reading and has some great tips on how to deal with IS. It also has a quiz so you can see how you score: 

https://impostorsyndrome.com/