5 Tips to Combat Imposter Syndrome

June-July 2023
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Is it some kind of synchronicity? All of a sudden, I keep hearing the phrase in all sorts of conversations and questions: “I think I have impostor syndrome.” “Have you ever had impostor syndrome?” 

One of the exhilarating parts of my job is the chance to talk to students in communications and public relations, and in my recent experiences of speaking with students from across the country and even international schools, the question seems to be universal. 

At this point, I’d be willing to bet a significant amount of money that, in every student conversation, this question is going to come up at least once: How should you manage impostor syndrome? 

This month, impostor syndrome is even the cover story of the Harvard Business Review. The publication concludes its robust coverage by saying that “It is, in fact, a rare leader who does not suffer from neurotic imposture,” which is their more clinical definition of what is commonly called imposter syndrome. 

While the naming of this might be new, the feelings and the meaning behind the framing are not new at all. Put simply, “impostor syndrome” refers to those who feel extremely anxious that they are “fooling” those around them into thinking that they have the requisite knowledge or skills, and who doubt their own abilities, often despite evidence that they indeed are or can be successful. Ask any experienced professional, and they will certainly tell you that they have felt this anxiety at some point — and maybe at many points — in their career. 

When asked about impostor syndrome, I share some tips garnered from years of starting new jobs myself as well as from hiring, training and mentoring new employees. These tactics are designed to acknowledge the fears and discomfort of entering the work world, while plotting a course to a productive experience. 

Be yourself.

No one expects you to know everything the day you start a new job; everyone knows when you are a newbie. Have confidence in your own ability to learn, to synthesize new information, and to quickly gain new knowledge and skills. Give your employer the chance to know your strengths and to help you improve so that you can keep growing and advancing.

Use your voice — a valuable asset — wisely.

As you dive into your role, you are probably excited to share your thoughts and ideas. Listen carefully and assess where your unique perspective can be valuable. 

At the same time, acknowledge that experienced voices in your organization also earned their credibility and deserve your attention. Consider how and when to best share your ideas — sometimes that means sharing widely in a big meeting, and sometimes that means fine-tuning your point of view by sharing with a smaller work or peer group first. 

Know that there is such a thing as a bad question.

Common wisdom often uses the phrase “There’s no such thing as a bad question,” but I strongly disagree with that statement. If your question shows that you haven’t done your homework or that you have come to a meeting unprepared, then your questions will reflect that. 

One productive way to defeat impostor syndrome is to make sure that you’re prepared for meetings, events and even team conversations. Ahead of time, it is a good question to ask your boss: “How can I best prepare?” or “What is the best source for information on this topic?” 

Know that there is also such a thing as a bad answer.

If someone asks you something and you don’t know the answer, then just say that. Never make up an answer or guess if you truly don’t know. You can use phrases like: “I’ve never looked at it that way,” or “That’s the first time I’m hearing that question.” 

Follow up with a specific plan to fill the gap, like, “I don’t know the answer. Let me research that and get back to you by the end of the day.”  

Remember that the journey continues.

This process will repeat itself throughout your career. Of course, you take your skills and knowledge with you wherever you go, but as you take on new roles and responsibilities, you will also enter uncharted territory each time. 

If you are a strong performer, then this will probably happen to you many times in your career. As you enter those new roles, don’t think of yourself as an impostor; think of yourself as a lifelong learner.

If you take only one thing away from this article, then I hope it is this: Worrying that you’re an impostor takes up valuable energy and can sap the strength that you do have. Rely on your knowledge and experience, and work continuously to learn, fill in gaps and continue your journey of learning. 

Return to Current Issue Health & Wellness | June-July 2023
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