Imposter syndrome isn't really a syndrome. It's more complex than that. And it impacts product people in a particularly virulent way.
This piece ran in TheNew Yorker earlier this year. Authored by Leslie Jamison, it questioned whether the term imposter syndrome was helpful—and whether the experience was even a syndrome.
The most intriguing part of the article was that whatever you call it, the fear of being exposed as inadequate isn’t vague self-doubt that we have to push through with the help of inspirational quotes and friends who tell us we’re killing it.
Rather, it’s a complex emotional experience involving your inner world, the people, and the systems around you.
As a user research lead, this made me reflect on my experience transitioning to product from product marketing and conversations with colleagues about their feelings of imposterdom.
Over time, I’ve come to look at all of our experiences working on a product team in the tech industry and found a few ways to limit the feeling of “faking it” when doing product work.
What contributes to feelings of imposterdom on a product team?
The first myth Jamison dispelled is that imposter syndrome is a you problem. Let’s take a look at some of the factors contributing to your feelings that you’re a fake beyond your level of self-confidence.
Our feelings of competency are often at the mercy of organizational culture
Have you ever seen a member of your management team admit they made a mistake?
Does your company or organization have a system for postmortems, where everyone is accountable for how they executed something?
When a mistake is made or a project fails, is the focus on who to blame or what you and your colleagues can do better next time?
The answers to these questions might give you a big clue as to why you’ve been feeling like an imposter lately.
At the core of feelings of inadequacy is fear. Mistakes are rungs on the ladder of learning and improving as a product professional. When your organization or management team treats mistakes as grounds for being blamed, dismissed, or worse, it engenders a systemic fear of failure.
Fear that failure could result in your downfall leads you to scrutinize your abilities more than if you were in a psychologically safe environment.
Environments like this make it more likely that you’ll find “holes” in your professional competency—and give rise to an internal dialogue that lends itself to feeling like an imposter.
Freedom from self judgement
The nature of product work leaves a lot of room for self-doubt
Simply put, product development is taking everything from management input, industry knowledge, quantitative and qualitative data points, and intuition—to churn out value for your users.
Whether you’re a product manager, researcher, or designer, your work involves a very high degree of trust in your judgment while knowing that reckoning will come in the form of definitive KPIs.
Often on product teams, specific people champion particular ideas based on their interpretation of the available information. They initiate product iterations and projects that often use a lot of internal resources, and it’s only after the expense of dev, design, data, and marketing resources that they know whether they succeeded in affecting key metrics.
This means the nature of product workistrusting yourself and convincing others to trust you without any way of verifying that you’re right. You have to convince yourself that you have a good product solution to a user need and be confident enough in what you’re saying to bring others along with you.
Invest in healthy working relationships.
The time between advocating for a product iteration and knowing the answer can be long, depending on the complexity. It’s not like, say, if you were a bank teller and you estimate a few crunched numbers in your head, check with a calculator, and correct a mistake a few seconds later.
There’s a long period where other people are working toward your unproven belief. It’s not so surprising that we start to doubt ourselves throughout this process.
People around you may be second-guessing your ideas, and you may be as well. You spend most of your days in a state of not knowing. There’s plenty of time to start wondering if you actually have no idea what you’re talking about.
If you’re a member of an underrepresented community, you’re more likely to feel like an imposter
Though the tech industry has made some serious strides in the past decade or two, many of us are underrepresented in our companies and the industry at large. When you look around and see that, in some way, you’re different from your colleagues, it creates a prime breeding ground for imposter syndrome.
Even though we know that a diversity problem at a particular organization or within the tech industry is completely unrelated to our own professional capabilities, the experience of being underrepresented lends itself to a subconscious self-doubt imposed on us by our environment.
Seek psychological safety.
So, what can product professionals do to limit the feelings that we’re faking it?
Now we know imposter syndrome isn’t a simple case of self-doubt we can talk ourselves out of. How our work works, who we work alongside, and our organizational culture create a system that can make it extremely difficult to shed feelings of being exposed as an imposter.
Here are a few things I’ve found helpful to quell imposter syndrome for you to consider.
Product development is all about investing resources before you get results, leading initiatives based on your interpretations of data and intuition. There’s simply no way that you’re the only one on the product team battling feelings that they’re not cut out for their role.
One of the most powerful antidotes to feeling like an imposter is knowing that it’s a normal human experience and that most of your team struggles with it, too. In other words, that nagging feeling of being a fake is a hazard of the job and does not reflect a personal flaw.
It’s important to understand that feeling like an imposter isn’t self-doubt that you can strongarm into submission. It’s a complex set of emotions that come from our self-perception, the nature of our work, and the surrounding culture.
With that knowledge, you can approach your own feelings of fakeness and fear of being exposed in a more nuanced way and, ultimately, achieve freedom from it.