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Project Management

How Project Managers Can Overcome Impostor Syndrome

Daniel Threlfall
June 12, 2017
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One day, as I started my typical work routine, something unexpected happened.  It was a normal day, and I was feeling great.  I was managing a new project, and it was going swimmingly.  But on that day, I heard a voice inside my head: “I’m a fraud.”

I tried to shake it off, but the doubt kept nagging at me. The thoughts kept coming.

What gives you the right to be here?” “Who are you to be leading this project?

I figured it was normal doubt, but it made me wonder. Was I a fraud?

I had a case of impostor syndrome.

I didn’t want to ask for help, and I kept it all to myself. Naturally, I had a difficult time with that project until I was able to overcome these feelings.

I had to realize I wasn’t a fraud, and doing that was surprisingly difficult.

Impostor syndrome is one of the trickiest problems you can encounter in a work setting. It lurks in the background and doesn’t call attention to itself, but it’s a very real issue that you need to watch out for.

It’s especially common with project managers.

Why? Because a lot of project managers are placed in their position seemingly by accident. They didn’t get a degree in management. They didn’t train as a PM. But here they are — leading, managing, and making decisions.

It’s quite common in this situation to feel the same sense I had that day — the feeling that you’re an imposter, that you shouldn’t be here, and that someone is eventually going to find out that you’re unqualified.

What is impostor syndrome?

While impostor syndrome isn’t recognized in the DSM, it’s been recognized by psychologists and other experts. In fact, it happens to a lot of people at some point in their careers.

This fact alone should give you some sense of relief. According to research, 70% of Millennials have imposter syndrome. But the phenomenon isn’t confined to Millennials. Tobias van Schneider writes, “Imposter Syndrome is something that affects most of us.”

The American Psychological Association notes that impostor syndrome often happens when:

  • You feel a strong pressure to achieve and perform well
  • You start a new job or position
  • You become too perfectionistic

And sometimes, it happens out of the blue.

It can lead to self-criticism, a drop in performance, decreased health, and high stress. Self-esteem goes down, and anxiety levels go up.

Often, impostor syndrome creates a deadly cycle. People beat themselves up over their feelings of inadequacy, and no matter whether they succeed or fail, they attribute any results to their self-criticism, which only makes it worse.

These feelings are common in project managers because the burden of leadership and oversight is placed directly upon them. There’s often pressure, whether explicit or implicit, and stress.

There’s also the fact that most project managers are high achievers, the group that impostor syndrome targets the most.

All of these factors create the ideal conditions for the impostor syndrome to take root.

That’s why you suddenly have that voice inside your head that makes you question yourself.

So here’s the million dollar question: What can you do about it?

Unfortunately, most people who suffer from it often hunker down and wait for it to go away. Or, even worse, they push themselves harder and harder, thinking that if they work hard enough, they’ll stop feeling like phonies.

The good news is that there are much better ways to deal with this problem.

You don’t have to sit and hope it vanishes. You can take actionable steps toward defeating this feeling and reclaiming your old self.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Stop being hard on yourself.

When we feel like fakes, we often take it out on ourselves.

We tell ourselves that the little voice inside our head is actually right, that we don’t deserve to be where we are.

But isn’t it interesting that impostor syndrome often happens to high achievers? They’re the people who have worked the hardest and have probably gotten accolades from bosses and colleagues.

This eye-opening piece by The New York Times revealed that even an award-winning poet like Maya Angelou, an actor like Tina Fey, or a marketing genius like Seth Godin have experienced impostor syndrome.

You’re probably wondering why such mega-successful people would ever feel like a fraud. But that’s the reality of impostor syndrome––it happens to the best of us.

I’d bet that you’d argue someone like Maya Angelou or Seth Godin deserves their success, right?

The same applies to you.

Take a moment and think about all of the work you’ve done to get where you are today. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Have I worked hard to climb the ladder?
  • Have I been generally successful over the course of my career?
  • Have others acknowledged my accomplishments?

At first, it might feel like you’re inflating your own ego. But that’s okay. Try to set those feelings aside, and honestly answer the questions.

If it helps you, you can write the answers down on paper.

Once you’re done, you’ll probably find that you’re being too hard on yourself.

If you’ve become a project manager, it hasn’t been by chance. Rather, it’s been the result of years of work and hustle.

Remember, impostor syndrome happens the most to those who are successful. That’s why you feel like a fraud. One day you realize that you are successful, and you don’t know how to process it.

If you can take an objective look at your accomplishments, you’ll be able to see all you’ve done.

You didn’t succeed because someone took pity on you. You succeeded because of your skill. Next time you’re faced with thoughts of inadequacy, try to be a little easier on yourself.

2. Focus on progress, not perfection.

Many project managers experience impostor syndrome because they’re obsessed with perfection.

They think that because they’re not achieving 100% perfection, they’re a phony.

It’s a dangerous cocktail of perfectionism and impostor syndrome that can keep you from doing your best.

It was Voltaire who may have originated the aphorism “perfect is the enemy of good.” Those words, written hundreds of years ago, are still as relevant today.

If your goal is perfection, you’re aiming for something you’ll never be able to reach.

I’ll never be able to perfectly manage a project, and neither will you. No human being can.

It sounds kind of depressing, but this knowledge can be freeing.

Once you let go of perfection, you can embrace all of your potential. You can focus on making progress and doing your absolute best to make your project awesome.

It can be difficult to ignore those impulses for perfection. Most projects by nature tend to be prescriptive and process-heavy.

As a result, you often feel like you have to tick all the boxes and do everything without a flaw. After all, that’s kind of the detailed nature of a project manager’s tools — timelines, personnel inventories, schedules, and gantt charts.

To beat this feeling, try to focus on the big picture goal. What is the point of the project? What results is it supposed to create?

You still have to be detail-oriented to an extent, but don’t obsess over every little detail. Don’t keep your eyes fixed on your feet to count your steps. Instead, set your sights on the finish line.

3. Acknowledge the problem.

The last stage in the five stages of grief is acceptance.

Countless gurus, yogis, psychologists, and experts preach the benefits of letting go and accepting what comes to you, a “roll with the punches” mentality.

The same is true for impostor syndrome. In order to truly overcome it, you have to admit that you have it.

If that sounds scary, ask yourself what bad things could happen just from admitting something to yourself.

If you say, “Okay, I have impostor syndrome,” what’s the worst that could happen? You have nothing to lose.

Once you admit it, you’ve identified your problem, and that’s important.

When you identify your impostor syndrome, all those feelings of not being good enough are no longer yours. They belong to the impostor syndrome.

And you’ll realize that you have no reason to have those feelings.

Turn a curse into a blessing

Impostor syndrome doesn’t have to be your Achilles’ heel.

In fact, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing at all. It’s a learning experience.

Often, when we go through hard times in our lives, we come out on the other side a much better person than we were before.

If you conquer impostor syndrome, you’ll realize that you’ve earned your successes, and you’ll be able to silence those voices that protest otherwise.

Of course, it won’t feel that way while you’re in the trenches. You’ll feel tempted to do less work or give up entirely.

But what seems like an unfortunate curse can become an unexpected blessing. It’s all in how you handle it.