Four ways to work through the imposter phenomenon

Published 9/14/2022

It’s estimated that around 70% of people experience the imposter phenomenon. With stats like that, there’s a good chance you are one of them.

X is Y data visualiser, Stephanie, counts herself in that number, too. As a graduate coming into a consultancy, she initially felt a huge sense of having to ‘fake it til she made it’. And for Stephanie, her concern wasn’t just about her own reputation, but that of X is Y’s. 

When, like Steph, you're experiencing imposter phenomenon, you don't give enough credit to what you do know (likely the reasons you were hired in the first place) and so you unnecessarily question your worth to clients. The imposter phenomenon that you experience is an internal process that brings those capabilities into question, to you alone. 

“I felt that as a consultant, I need to know exactly what I’m doing. I struggled with the idea that I was giving other people advice, but how can I trust what I’m saying to a client if I don't feel like I know what I’m doing?”

“It feels like a constant anxiety of being inadequate to perform my job well, and it is exhausting having to prove to the client and myself that I know something.”

While Steph’s feelings may sound normal for a newbie, the imposter phenomenon can (and probably will) show up at any stage of your career. After all, these feelings are really just a natural part of the human condition. We’ve come to label reasonable self-doubt as a ‘syndrome’, when really it’s just a part of being a professional in an emergent and fast-changing world of work.

That being said, imposter feelings are genuine, and can begin to impact how you show up at work. They are particularly prevalent in women, working in sectors where typically a gender imbalance still exists. These feelings can be driven by personality traits, behavioural causes and deep-set narratives established in childhood, so it can take some intentional work to help lessen the imposter load for yourself - and support people around you in doing the same.

Realising that her imposter feelings weren’t serving her, Steph has found ways to work with them, rather than against - so, she’s shared her tips to help others here:

Reframe your perspective

Steph says one of the most significant changes she made was to decide to turn up to each work day knowing that she’ll learn, rather than fail. “I began to focus on the small wins, and this reflection on my progress helped me shift my mindset to see that every time I didn’t know something, it was an opportunity to learn. I can see that the ‘me’ today is better than the ‘me’ yesterday or the ‘me’ last week. 

“I realised challenges will always be there, so changing your internal world to be more positive can help you face them with more confidence. Knowing that challenges are always going to be there, it becomes more about honing down your understanding of ways to tackle them - that’s the part you can take control of.”

Vocalise your vulnerability

Steph says having supportive peers is critical - but it starts by being vulnerable about how you’re feeling and open to asking for help. Seeing vulnerability modelled by others around her also enabled her to reach out when she needed to.

“The mindset of expecting myself to fail/learn each day took the pressure off myself. However, I still had to keep pushing myself.

“The trust that my team and directors had in my ability to learn and do things helped me trust myself more. My team made me feel empowered and their vulnerability allowed me to be honest in where I’m at and we all could help each other”, Steph said. “Now I’m OK with not knowing everything, but I have a plan on how I seek support and feel more confident in my ways of managing what I don’t know.”

Building trust in an organisation really takes intention and consistency - we’ve previously shared these tips on how to build trust within your organisation.

Recognise your strengths and soft skills

For Steph, a turning point was the recognition that her value didn’t just lie in her technical job skills, but also her relational skills, growth mindset and positive personality traits.

“A lot of the imposter syndrome I had came from feeling unsure about what a client thought of me or the company by what I do and do not know. But self awareness comes into play here in understanding that I don’t only bring technical skills and knowledge, but so much more. I’m good at supporting and encouraging others. I know how to make people feel empowered about themselves”, says Steph.

“I can use that to my advantage to help clients feel heard, seen and supported, whether it's to do with work or even just life in general. Then I can trust that I’m recognised as someone who is more than just an employee who can visualise data.”

Review retrospectively

At X is Y, we’re big on looking backwards through retrospective meetings. Steph points out that this practice has helped her recognise her own progress.

“The more you look back at things you didn't know before but you know now gives you more confidence in your ability that the next thing you don't know, you’ll overcome it either by your increase in skill level or your way of working through challenges”, she explains.

Hire for a growth mindset

The world of work is changing fast; there are new ways of doing things all the time. Organisations are coming to understand that you can’t hire someone to solve a problem that hasn’t been determined yet, and putting greater emphasis on employing people with a demonstrable growth mindset and a willingness to learn new things. After all, skills you can teach, but attitude less so. X is Y directors, Cyrus and Jared, knew when they hired her that, as a new graduate, Steph still had plenty to learn, but they could recognise she had the right mindset to grow.

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