How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome at Work - Embracing Discomfort
We are all challenged when we recognize our skills aren't perfect. We need to embrace the discomfort to continue to grow.
I was a few months into my new job at Amazon as a level 5 manager, an entry level management position. I had started out excited. Then I felt confused. Then I was scared. The pace was faster than I was used to. The complexity of the systems was mind boggling. It seemed like the other managers knew exactly what they were doing, and I was silently lost.
I can remember the worst moments of panic when I closed the door to my office, pretending to be busy. I couldn't handle another person entering my office, and demanding decisions I didn't feel qualified to make. My peer managers walked around with confidence, directing their teams with skill and autonomy. I felt like I didn't belong. I began to imagine what searching for a new job would be like, with only a few months of Amazon experience on my resume.
Imposter Syndrome is the persistent voice in the back of your mind saying "You're not good enough", "You don't belong here", or "Everyone else is better at this." It is a painful feeling. It is also common for everyone to feel it at times, and can be managed with purposeful action.
Two sides of the same coin
I was promoted 3 times at Amazon after that painful ramp up period. I moved from an entry level software development manager, to a Director of Technology. Looking back at it, I would say that my imposter syndrome fears were both justified, and fallacious.
You can't blanket deny imposter syndrome fears, because we know deep down that there is truth behind them. We are often expected to do uncomfortable things. Our co-workers might do them better. We absolutely are justified in our fears we might fail. There are occasions when we are expected to do something, we will try, and we will fail.
When I joined Amazon, I didn't come from the same engineering background as my peers. I hadn't built systems of the same scale. I hadn't managed a team as large as I was given when I joined. I was justified in being afraid of failure.
We don't feel imposter syndrome when working on tasks we're comfortable with. I remember in those early months the exciting moments when someone asked me a question I could answer. Perhaps it was only a tiny question about publishing tools, but it was finally something I was familiar with. I jumped into that discussion with two feet.
Instead, we feel imposter syndrome when we legitimately don't have expertise. When we're being stretched, we might not succeed. We might know less than our co-workers. Others might discover our gaps in experience, knowledge, or skills. Our fears are justified.
I used fallacious because it's a fantastic word we should use more, and it speaks directly to imposter syndrome. Something is fallacious when it is "based on a mistaken belief."
I believed I was missing some core engineering skills. Most of my peers at the time had been engineers at Amazon before becoming managers, and I didn't have the same background. However, it turns out that the knowledge of how to code at Amazon was not a core skill necessary to being a successful manager. I was correct that I was missing some engineering experience, I was incorrect that it was necessary.
I believed that my co-workers were directing their teams better than I was. When I paid close attention to their decisions, I began to recognize decisions I disagreed with. Their background and experience was not better than mine, it was different. I was correct that they had more experience at Amazon, but I was incorrect that this experience was better.
I believed that my co-workers were confident and lacked the doubt I felt. As I grew to know my co-workers, I realized that everyone deals with doubt and fear differently. Some people avoided areas of discomfort. Some people invested excessive time seeking perfection. Others smothered their internal doubt in unbridled arrogance. I was correct that my co-workers looked confident from the outside, but I was incorrect in my assumption that they lacked doubt.
I believed that I was unable to make some decisions for the team due to an ability or experience gap. As I grew in experience, I began to recognize that some engineers were pushing their challenging engineering decisions onto their manager. I was correct that I was not qualified to make those decisions, but I was incorrect that those decisions should be made by me.
Coping with imposter syndrome
Since imposter syndrome can be justified, it's not realistic to suggest overcoming it. I think doubting your own abilities is healthy. Recognizing that you may be wrong is a valuable trait for leaders. If you're challenging yourself, you should have doubt in your ability to be successful.
Instead, you need to work on coping mechanisms to be successful despite imposter syndrome.