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Beat Impostor Syndrome

Impostor Syndrome is the failure to internalize your own success. Impostors commonly believe they have used luck and charm to trick the world into thinking they’re more competent than they actually are. I have found these to be dangerous thoughts that lead to unnecessary suffering. Here’s how to beat it.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

WikiPedia describes impostor syndrome as follows:

Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

So, impostor syndrome is about how we attribute success in the world: when other people are “successful”, we attribute that to their qualities and we discount the environmental factors; when we are successful, we discount our own qualities and attribute it to the environment. They are competent, I just got lucky.

People with impostor syndrome can usually rationally explain their own competence. We “know” we didn’t get that raise last year for a job well done. The brain has to synthesise the feelings of incompetence (“I have no idea what I’m doing”) with the evidence of success (“I got a good raise this year”). The simplest conclusion it can come up with is: you’re fake, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world finds out.

Why should I care?

Impostor syndrome can manifest itself in different forms, such as the fear of being criticised, fear of failure, the fear of admitting you don’t know or reluctance to accept outside help (see Valerie Young’s The Secret Thoughts Of Successful Women for much more in-depth review of this topic).

Such thoughts can lead to harmful behaviour, such as self-sabotage, never finishing work, shying away from the spotlight, and, most commonly, overcompensation. By putting in more time and effort than anyone else, you try to cover up your supposed incompetence. This, of course, only raises expectations and reinforces the feelings of inadequacy. Ultimately, when not dealt with, impostor syndrome can lead to burn out, depression and missed opportunities for joy and fulfillment — affecting not only impostors personally but also their jobs and their loved ones.

Burn out is not the only negative effect to look out for. There is a number of harmful effects impostor syndrome can have on your software team:

  • Reduced knowedge sharing when impostors are afraid to ask questions (for fear of appearing incompetent) or neglect to share their views (assuming everybody already knows this).
  • Quality drops when impostors are afraid to criticise each other works in code reviews or pair programming sessions, or put off collecting feedback on their work until the last possible moment before the deadline.
  • Shirking on responsibility for a project out of fear of revealing supposed incompetence, hurts the self-guiding agile team and places a heavier burden on traditional project management.
  • Not showcasing good work in the company, towards clients or at conferences. Taking credit can be hard for impostors who feel their work is not good enough or tend to deflect praise to others. Team members miss out on well-deserved pride and the company on potential new business.
  • A competitive disadvantage compared to other companies who can innovate, experiment and try out new things without fear of appearing unprofessional or incompetent.

Deal with your own impostor syndrome

Typical advice for dealing with impostor syndrome is to learn to accept yourself and give yourself permission to fail. Those are lofty goals indeed, but here I propose a few more actionable steps from my own experience your might take to achieve them.

  1. Name it
    Transforming a vague sense of inadequacy and unease into a specific, understandable syndrome is a pre-requisite for actually doing something about it.

  2. Be mindful
    You don’t have to believe every thought you have. Mindfulness can help you observe and accept thoughts and emotions as they come and go, without judgement. Rather than being defined by feelings of inadequacy, this allows you to respond to those feelings.

  3. Write a personal mission statement
    We cannot trust our brains to assess our succes — it tells us we’re impostors — so we need something else. A personal mission statement is a great way to create an external frame of reference for success against what matters most to you. Reflect on it regularly to remind yourself of what success actually means to you.

  4. Gather a feedback group
    A group of trusted peers that give you feedback is another great way to get external validation of how you are doing. This is not about re-assurance, but honest feedback — as scary as that may be.

  5. Step outside your comfort zone
    …because that’s where interesting things happen. Understand the boundaries of your comfort zone, anticipate the thoughts and feelings that will come up when you will step outside it, and then make the conscious decision to make that step.

In summary: be aware of your emotions, create external references for competences and then hold your breath and take that scary leap.

Helping others with their impostor syndrome

Dealing with impostor syndrome on your own is one thing, but you may be able to help others, too. Impostors will do their best to hide their true emotions from you as a colleague or team leader (after all, they don’t want to be found out), but there are some outward signs that you can look for. None of these necessarily indicate impostor syndrome per se, but when you notice enough of them, you might want to open up conversation:

  • self-deprecating humour, downplaying achievements and emphasising mistakes or perceived failures;
  • desperately slaving alone on a difficult problem without asking for help;
  • reluctance toward pair programming, and consistently favouring the role of passive navigator;
  • providing little input in code reviews or architecture discussions, preferring to follow others’ lead;
  • constantly referring to what is wrong in a project and being unable to celebrate success;
  • spending lots of extra hours at home or at the office to shore up skills or solve problems few other people care about.
  • preference to work alone and integrate their work with the rest of the team as little and as late as possible;
  • writing good fixes in open source software and not submitting them back to the original project, or failing to extract useful libraries out of succesful projects;

Again, all these behaviours might have a myriad of valid or practical reasons. But observe enough of them in smart and experienced developers and it might be time for a chat. Regardless, there are ways to minimise the harmful effects of impostor syndrome in the workplace:

  • Create a safe environment
    Safety is crucial in teams. Foster respect, openness and feedback in your teams, and ensure team members feel the permission to make mistakes.

  • Set explicit expectations
    If you are a manager, make sure your set clear boundaries and expectations for your teams. Explain what behaviour will get them rewarded and respected, how you’re allowed to fail, and what the company values. Make no mistake, this all is a lot easier said than done.

  • Coaching
    Employ professional coaching for you team members. This means an experienced, preferably external, coach — not a manager taking 10 minutes to ask how you’re doing. Coaching can quite effective, but only if you are not discussing your personal issues with someone in charge of your salary or contract.

Most of all, make sure competency, success and failure are transformed from fuzzy notions into explicit values and boundaries. Make it explicit, demonstrate their application and over time, team members will be able to internalise them. When they do, they will flourish.

Sources and further reading

This post is a summary of an earlier conference talk I did and is based on much earlier work and research:

  • leadership
  • teams
  • impostor syndrome
Arjan van der Gaag

Arjan van der Gaag

A thirtysomething software developer, historian and all-round geek. This is his blog about Ruby, Rails, Javascript, Git, CSS, software and the web. Back to all talks and articles?


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