When i had the imposter syndrome

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You often hear about people feeling relieved when they finally get a diagnosis of their disease. Ten years ago, I was relieved. I suffered from Imposter syndrome without knowing I had it, or what it was. Then I got the diagnosis from my manager who told me to speak up more and sent me a link[1] to this syndrome. According to Wikipedia the definition of Imposter Syndrome is “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts his skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud.”

My manager told me that I often had great insights but expressed them too late. Since then, I have made a complete U-turn and challenged the status quo often and hard, with trust in myself and my experience as the ground to stand on. Perhaps I now have a touch of the Dunning-Kruger effect[2], which is the opposite; too high thoughts about myself? My solution to balance this, and not risk spilling over to a besserwisser, is extreme feedback. I always tell my peers to give me immediate and candid feedback and expect them to ask the same of me.

In retrospect, my Imposter syndrome lasted for ten years, all the time without understanding I had this problem. I was a middle-aged former, mediocre software developer who understood I could not master the new technology, like object-oriented programming, Java, and RUP, so I needed to become a generalist to be able to pay the mortgages.  I changed my title from programmer to technical project manager, often being the right hand to the program- or project manager. I became an expert on tools needed for Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) and was the missing link between the teams and the project managers. This small area of expertise kept me running, telling myself I was useful despite questioning myself and my overall skills. All the people around me were much smarter, faster, and better looking, I thought. Then I got the diagnosis from my manager and since 2005 I believe I am bringing value to my team. But I doubted it and still do – but less now.

The more Psychological Safety we feel, the less likely we feel like an Imposter who’s going to be revealed. Also, the presence of Psychological Safety means we’re more likely to actually ask for help, admit our mistakes and develop our skills in the workplace. That means we can visualise and get help with our weaknesses.

So, how can you create an environment in your organisation and make people trust themselves to be great? My best advice is:

  1. As my manager, show me I am valuable. Give immediate candid feedback and back up the quieter people. When I speak for the first time, give me an open appraisal like “Thanks Ove for your contribution and insights”.
  2. In meetings, say your humble opinion, but don’t cross the border to the land of besserwisser.
  3. Accentuate positive things when they happen.
  4. As a team-mate or peer, give me candid and immediate feedback like high fives, pats on the back, emojis and other tokens of appreciation when I have done something good, and especially when I have potential for improvement.
  5. Create opportunities for public speaking in a small format. Start with inspirational sessions on a topic you master for your team and try a bigger forum later.
  6. Say yes to challenges as opportunities to talk about your expert area.
  7. On social events, try to talk about your Imposter Syndrome (if you have it!). Few have heard about it and might be interested.
  8. Ask questions related to your weaknesses and be curious.

This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.

[1] Imposter syndrome:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imposter_syndrome

[2] Dunning–Kruger effect: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect