Does this sound familiar? You’ve been assigned to a project that required a technical skill you haven’t mastered – and now you feel like a fraud. Or, you’ve been promoted to a new position that you weren’t 100% qualified for, and you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. Impostor syndrome can affect professionals in any industry, at any career stage. For product professionals, recognizing and working through impostor syndrome can help apply your valued skills to new projects and help you shine on your team.
In this article, we define impostor syndrome, identify what it can look like, and demonstrate ways product professionals can work through imposter syndrome to showcase their strengths.
What is impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome occurs when a person isn’t able to believe that they’ve achieved their success legitimately. Particularly, they don’t believe that they deserve their success, despite how others perceive them.
Although impostor syndrome may seem like a recent phenomenon, it was first identified in the 1970s. Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term to describe thoughts that high-achieving women had about themselves and their work. These thoughts included believing that others inaccurately perceived them as being more skilled than they were, a fear of being exposed as a fraud or “impostor”, and a tendency to downplay their achievements.
Since Clance and Imes’ research began in the 1970s, research has shown that impostor syndrome can affect anyone. However, women, people of color, people from low-income backgrounds, and other marginalized groups may experience higher rates of impostor syndrome due to racism, social stigmas, and microaggressions.
Research suggests that between 60-80% of the population may experience impostor syndrome during their careers. Considering its prevalence, it’s important to identify and counteract its negative effects.
Impostor Syndrome in Product Managers
Impostor syndrome can occur in any profession. Unfortunately, it is pervasive among product professionals due to the fast-paced and often high-pressure nature of product work. Product teams often work in industries that rapidly change, such as finance or tech. Product managers and product marketers often work on highly visible products, leading to high expectations for their work. Additionally, product roles require a diverse blend of skill sets including business, marketing, technical, and interpersonal skills. Overall, managing the ambiguity and uncertainty of changing product priorities in evolving markets can contribute to feelings of impostor syndrome.
What does impostor syndrome look like in product managers?
Impostor syndrome can manifest in several different ways. Characteristics can include:
- Self-Doubt. Product professionals who experience impostor syndrome may feel that they don’t deserve their title, don’t qualify for a promotion, or are not equipped to lead a project. This creates a cycle of doubting their abilities, leading to a fear that colleagues will discover that they are a fraud.
- Fear of Failure. If a product manager with impostor syndrome feels that they aren’t qualified for their job, they may be less willing to take risks, make big decisions, or contribute ideas. This hesitation may stem from a fear of being wrong or a fear that their ideas just aren’t good enough.
- Negative Self-Comparison. People with impostor syndrome often compare themselves with others. This is a way to benchmark their success. When they don’t match up to others’ accomplishments and achievements, they may feel that they aren’t as good as their peers. Focusing on others’ successes contributes to them downplaying their accomplishments.
- Attributing Success to External Factors. This could be crediting their successes to luck or to help from colleagues. This goes beyond giving team members credit for their contributions. Product managers with impostor syndrome may believe that they did not legitimately achieve their success.
How can it help your product career?
Impostor syndrome can lead to negative impacts for product professionals. However, it can also support positive skills such as empathy, openness to feedback, humility, and resilience. Managing feelings of impostor syndrome can drive professionals to lifelong learning and enable them to manage team dynamics more empathetically.
Learning to recognize the negative characteristics of impostor syndrome and work through it with self-compassion can help product professionals accept credit for their skills and accelerate their careers.
How Product Managers Can Work Through Impostor Syndrome
There are several ways that product managers and other product professionals can work through impostor syndrome. Beginning by acknowledging that problem is a crucial first step to overcoming the issue. If you are experiencing impostor syndrome, here are some steps you can take.
- Gather feedback from trusted sources (and accept positive feedback). Regularly seeking constructive feedback can help gather accurate information about your strengths and opportunities to improve. Working with a trusted colleague or mentor, and establishing clear lines of communication, can help you gather that feedback. It’s important to choose sources that are trustworthy, reliable, and supportive. Hearing truthful feedback can help counteract the feelings of self-doubt that characterize impostor syndrome.
- Make a list of your accomplishments, skills, and the things you know. Documenting these and seeing them on paper can help put your skills and accomplishments in perspective and serve as a tangible reminder of your capabilities and successes. When those fraudulent feelings surface, looking at this list can help you refocus on the value that you bring to your team.
- Share your ideas. For some, feelings of self-doubt can make it hard to contribute to discussions and share ideas. Challenge yourself to speak up a little at a time – maybe that’s twice per day, or once in every meeting you attend. This can reinforce your sense of belonging and competence and create more opportunities to receive constructive feedback and positive recognition.
- Demonstrate your knowledge. Those with impostor syndrome may not feel that they have the qualifications and skills they need to succeed in their role. Investing in your career with a product management certification can help strengthen your skills and connect you with professional peer support. Furthermore, getting a certification in your field shows a commitment to learning and professional growth that is valuable for any career.
- Take control of your time. Time management is a common challenge for product professionals. Managing time effectively can help reduce stress and feelings of being overwhelmed, which exacerbate impostor syndrome. Reserving time to get work done, setting clear boundaries for your availability, and making time for self-care can help preserve your work-life balance and combat negative feelings.
- Separate feelings from facts. Challenge and reframe negative self-talk. Certainly, separating emotions from objective facts is difficult. Still, it’s important to recognize that feeling inadequate doesn’t make you inadequate. When you experience negative feelings, take a moment to acknowledge and counter them with a fact-based statement. For example, if you think “I’m not qualified for this job”, reframe that thought with “I’m learning new skills that will help me succeed”.
- Seek additional help. If feelings of impostor syndrome become overwhelming or unmanageable, seek help from a mentor, coach, or therapist. Professionals can help identify the underlying causes of persistent feelings of impostor syndrome and can create personalized plans to manage those feelings effectively. Additionally, feelings of inadequacy may be caused by unsafe or hostile work environments, particularly for marginalized communities. If systemic workplace issues affect your mental health, notify your company’s human resources team.
How can product professionals support each other?
- Create psychological safety. Product teams should create a work environment where team members feel safe to express their thoughts and ideas. Creating a psychologically safe workplace involves using open communication and showing empathy for others. When team members feel psychologically safe, they feel less risk of judgment and criticism from their teams.
- Be thoughtful in your language and actions. Team communication can have a significant impact on individual employees. Using inclusive language, offering constructive feedback, and being mindful of cues like tone and body language can help. Considerate communication can help build a supportive culture.
- Limit comparisons. Comparison is a common pitfall for product team members. Product leaders should acknowledge individual growth and contributions over competition. Highlighting each team member’s unique strengths and roles can help reduce unhealthy competition.
- Encourage collaboration over competition. Product team members should promote a collaborative environment where team members can work together. That can help showcase unique skill sets while combatting feelings of isolation that often accompany feelings of fraudulence.
- Help others practice confidence. Product managers and team leaders have a unique opportunity to build up team members. Encourage everyone to share ideas and take on new challenges (and show that it’s okay to fail). Provide opportunities to assist or lead on projects, meetings, and team initiatives. Facilitate mentoring and peer programs, which can help team members feel connected and supported.
- Celebrate accomplishments. People experiencing impostor syndrome may not be aware of how much they’ve accomplished. Create opportunities to share wins and achievements. Ask individual team members to share what they’re proud of regularly, such as a weekly team meeting. Highlight each other’s contributions and share kudos in public channels.
A little support goes a long way to creating a psychologically safe team culture.
Impostor syndrome is a common issue for product professionals. Recognizing traits of impostor syndrome such as feelings of self-doubt, is key to changing thoughts and behavior. Additionally, predict teams and leaders have a unique opportunity to create supportive workplaces that combat impostor syndrome for employees.