Project Management

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome as a Project Manager

Daniel Threlfall
June 12, 2017
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One day, as I started my typical work routine, something unexpected happened. 

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 classic case of imposter syndrome.

I didn’t want to ask for help and kept it all to myself. Naturally, that made managing the project even harder. I had to realize I wasn’t a fraud—and doing that was surprisingly difficult.

In this article, I’ll unpack what imposter syndrome is and what research says about it. I’ll also share simple tips that have helped me overcome imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is an internal sense of inadequacy that makes you doubt your own qualifications for the job at hand. People with imposter syndrome often feel like it’s only a matter of time before others find out they’re a fraud.

The American Psychological Association notes that imposter 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.

Why you should pay attention to imposter syndrome

Imposter 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.

Imposter syndrome can lead to lower self-esteem and higher anxiety levels. As a result, your health and performance can both take a hit.

Often, imposter syndrome creates a vicious cycle. People beat themselves up over their feelings of inadequacy. No matter whether they succeed or fail, they attribute any results to their self-criticism—and that only makes it worse.

Lots of project managers feel like a fraud

Imposter syndrome 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.”

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.

Many project managers also deal with imposter syndrome because the burden of leadership and oversight is placed directly upon them. There’s often pressure—whether explicit or implicit—as well as stress.

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

All of these factors create the ideal conditions for the imposter syndrome to take root. That’s why you suddenly have that voice inside your head that makes you question yourself.

Tips for overcoming imposter syndrome at work

So here’s the million-dollar question: What can you do about imposter syndrome?

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: There are much better ways to deal with imposter syndrome.

You don’t have to sit back and wait for it to vanish. You can take actionable steps to defeat those feelings of self-doubt and reclaim your confidence. Here’s how.

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 imposter 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 award-winning poets like Maya Angelou, actors like Tina Fey, or marketing gurus like Seth Godin have experienced imposter syndrome.

You’re probably wondering why such mega-successful people would ever feel like a fraud. But that’s the reality of imposter 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 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, imposter 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 imposter syndrome because they’re obsessed with perfection. They think, if they’re not achieving 100% perfection, they’re a phony.

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome are a dangerous cocktail that can keep you from doing your best.

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome are a dangerous cocktail that can keep you from doing your best. If your goal is perfection, you’re aiming for something you’ll never be able to reach.

Have you ever heard the saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good”? These words—often attributed to 18th-century writer Voltaire—were coined hundreds of years ago yet are still relevant today.

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—project 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.

Keep the big picture in easy view

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3. Acknowledge the problem

The last stage in the 5 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 imposter syndrome. To truly overcome it, you have to admit you have it. If that sounds scary, ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen?

Once you’ve identified the problem, all those feelings of not being good enough are no longer yours. They belong to the imposter syndrome.

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

Turn imposter syndrome into 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 imposter 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.