Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon in which you feel undeserving of your place in life. Many people experience imposter syndrome at work, thinking they’re underqualified and constantly at risk of being outed as such.
If you’re experiencing imposter syndrome at work, keep reading. I’ve got some great tips (many gleaned from my own experiences) to share that will help you shake the anxiety that comes from feeling like an imposter.
How to overcome imposter syndrome at work: 12 essential tips
1. Recognize how widespread imposter syndrome is
Research from the American Psychological Association reveals as many as 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. Other resources (such as this Forbes article) reveal imposter syndrome also isn’t limited to entry-level workers, with even executives reporting it.
This aligns with something I’ve observed at every company I’ve worked for thus far: very few people are 100% confident in what they’re doing. Most of us make mistakes and encounter knowledge gaps on a daily basis. These experiences remind us how much we still have to learn. This is completely normal and nothing to beat yourself up about.
2. Evaluate whether the facts align with your feelings
Are you actually an imposter? Or do you just lack confidence? Answering this question is essential for dealing with imposter syndrome. Here are some prompts that should help.
Were you honest about your abilities during the job interview?
If the answer is yes, your employer evaluated that information and ultimately decided to hire you. Perhaps they saw potential even if you were missing some of the criteria they were after. Maybe you’re just bad at evaluating yourself and actually do have all of the prerequisites. Heck, maybe the company hired you because they recognize you have imposter syndrome and would therefore want less money yet be more committed to growing in the role. In any of these scenarios, you’re not an imposter.
On the other hand, if you were dishonest during the interview process, you are an imposter. That’s something you’ll have to deal with by either filling knowledge gaps before anyone notices or owning up to your dishonesty.
How are you performing?
Are you hitting targets and key performance indicators? If so, you probably aren’t an imposter. Even if you feel like some tasks are harder than they should be, that’s not the worst thing in the world. Commit to mastering those skills and you’ll eventually be ready to move up.
If you’re underperforming, it’s possible you lack the skills required to deliver the expected results. The next question should help you determine appropriate next steps.
What feedback do your peers and managers give you?
Do you receive positive feedback from people you work with, particularly your manager? That’d be a good sign. Even if your imposter syndrome is justified because you lack some skills and experience, that positive feedback is likely meant to encourage you. Your employer likes what they see.
If you don’t receive much feedback at all, that could be because your employer doesn’t think you need it. Perhaps they see you as being competent and would rather direct attention in areas it’s required. Your imposter syndrome is probably unjustified in this case, too.
If you receive lots of negative feedback, though, your imposter syndrome may be on the mark.
3. Acknowledge the demographic implications of imposter syndrome
While imposter syndrome is widespread, some demographics experience it more commonly than others. For example, much has been written about the confidence gap, which is a studied phenomenon in which women are often unjustifiably less confident about their abilities than men.
Race also plays a big role here; often, people of color feel like imposters at work because they have to tone down cultural displays to fit in.
Poorer people also often experience imposter syndrome because they missed the educational opportunities that would have increased their confidence in the workplace.
If you have imposter syndrome because you fall into one of these buckets, those feelings may be unjustified by the hard facts. If you look hard enough around you, you’ll likely notice others are far less skilled than you yet more confident without demographic factors holding them back.
4. Recognize every job (even one that doesn’t work out) offers valuable experience
Being fired for incompetence is a common fear among those experiencing imposter syndrome. That was certainly my biggest fear when I recently switched careers and started working in tech.
What calmed me down was the following realization:
Even if my worst fears came true, I would still benefit from the experience. My technical skills would inevitably improve after working with senior professionals, even if they did nothing but rip my code and ideas apart. I could then use that knowledge to find a more suitable job.
In other words, I realized that even if I lost, I’d win. It was just a matter of reframing my outlook and approaching the situation with an open mind.
That approach actually steered me away from my worst fear. I became more receptive to feedback, which made superiors at my company express how much they enjoyed working with me.
I recognize being able to take this approach is a luxury since getting fired might unleash dire consequences for some people. If you have a solid professional network and financial foundation, though, getting fired probably isn’t the end of the world.
5. Reframe your negative thoughts about imposter syndrome
To build on my previous point, perspective is very important when it comes to addressing imposter syndrome. Reinterpreting negative thoughts can mean the difference between cracking under the pressure and growing under it instead.
Here are some common negative thoughts you might experience because of imposter syndrome – and how you might reframe them to be more productive.
|Negative thought||Positive reframing|
|Wow, everyone here is so much smarter than me. They’re all going to think I’m stupid.||Wow, I’m going to learn so much by working with all of these smart people.|
|I just made a silly mistake – my coworkers are all thinking about how dumb I am.||I now have an opportunity to show my superiors and colleagues how I respond to and learn from my mistakes.|
|Everything is taking me so much longer than it should. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.||I’m still learning. If I approach this strategically, I’ll eventually become much faster at tasks like this.|
|I have no idea how to do this thing my boss just requested. I’m stupid and destined to fail.||This is an opportunity to learn something new and demonstrate my ability to do so.|
6. Find a mentor you can trust
Having a mentor can be tremendously helpful when you’re looking to overcome imposter syndrome at work. Your mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be at your company; in fact, you may find it easier to deal with constructive feedback from someone who doesn’t work with you.
A mentor can be a valuable sounding board for ideas and provide a third party’s perspective on interactions you have at work.
7. Under-promise and over-deliver
If you’re new to the role or industry that has you grappling with imposter syndrome at work, it’s important to set realistic expectations. If someone asks you to estimate how long an unfamiliar task will take, make sure you have all the necessary information before providing an answer. Once you do give an answer, be conservative. It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver.
This can be very counter-intuitive. Instinctively, you may want to come across as very confident and commit to finishing tasks very quickly. Speaking from experience, though, that will come back to bite you if you aren’t careful.
8. Project confidence (even when you don’t feel like it)
Your demeanor matters more than you might think. If you behave in a way that suggests you lack confidence, people will interpret everything you do in that light. They’ll interpret your mistakes as evidence you lack experience. If you exude confidence, however, people will be more forgiving in their evaluations.
This has been studied extensively, as documented in this Harvard Business Review article.
Of course, you don’t want to come across as being arrogant – particularly if your peers and superiors know you’re new to the tasks in question. Just exude confidence in your ability to figure things out (and be sure to follow through on it).
9. Track your progress by building a brag sheet
A brag sheet highlights your accomplishments and skills. Many people think of brag sheets in the context of applying for college but they can be helpful for documenting your achievements in a particular work role as well.
Whenever you accomplish something noteworthy (i.e. completing a task ahead of schedule) or receive praise from a key stakeholder, document the circumstances. Be sure to reference those situations during performance reviews. You can even refer to them on your own whenever you’re having a rough day just to remind yourself that you can succeed (and have before).
10. Build confidence in other areas of your life
Often, imposter syndrome arises from the fear of being seen as an incompetent person. This is especially tough if you’ve traditionally been an over-achiever yet are entering a new field or role.
I experienced this during my recent career change. I felt intense whiplash going from being one of my company’s most experienced and trusted experts to being a fresh face in an entirely new company and industry. In my most stressful moments, however, I find comfort in reminding myself I have achieved competence in the past and will do it again.
If you don’t have another area of your life to draw that confidence from, look for one. It doesn’t have to be career-focused; you may find establishing confidence in a hobby does the trick just as well.
11. Make a commitment to learn and grow
Changing your mindset is an important part of overcoming imposter syndrome at work. However, you can also make incredible strides by strategically increasing your knowledge in areas you struggle with. As your knowledge increases, so will your confidence until you (hopefully) stop feeling like an imposter.
Take an online course or use whatever other resources are available to you. Your peers will likely notice and appreciate your efforts at self-improvement, particularly if you have noticeable skill gaps.
How to overcome imposter syndrome at work: Conclusion
Speaking from experience, imposter syndrome can be quite stressful. I hope this article has given you some food for thought regarding alleviating that stress and growing in spite of imposter syndrome. Click here to check out more of my articles on the topic of career guidance.