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Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

An increasing number of millennials aren't confident that they deserve the jobs they have. Here's how you can own your career choices and be proud of where you are!

“Why did they give me this job?”

“I have no experience in this field!”

“What if I make a mistake?”

“These folks won’t listen to advice from a thirty-year old woman….”

“You should get someone qualified who actually knows what to do.”

These were all actual statements I made to my boss about two years ago when he offered me the chance to step up into my current role, an opportunity that arose due to organisational restructuring and changes in leadership. While it was definitely flattering to be considered, I first thought he was crazy and wasn’t really thinking about how important the role was, to offer it to a relative rookie. I was given a team comprising of my peers, of people who had been in the company for 10+ years, of people working on technical matters that I had zero knowledge of, located across three cities. Almost two years later, I’m glad he did because the journey has forced me to step up, face my own fears, push myself to learn and be completely okay with figuring things out along the way. This does not stop the fact that I do question myself once every few months on what exactly am I doing here, and am I really adding value to this role? Do people really trust what I’m asking them to do? Do they think I’m here because of just proximity to the senior management?

I’m not ashamed to say that I do go through bouts of The Impostor Syndrome, a behavioural phenomenon where individuals (mostly millennials) who have either moved fairly quickly up the career ladder or are in positions of importance feel that their achievements are often undeserved or they’ll be called out to justify what exactly they’re doing in such an important role.

What make someone feel like an imposter (but in reality, make them great candidates for taking on key and impactful roles?)

  • Funnily enough, confidence – there’s no room for hesitation when an opportunity arises. They say that when you’re offered a seat on a rocketship, get on and find the seat later. However, sometimes once you’re on, it can get confusing to figure out which seat to take! Still, individuals who have high levels of confidence in themselves to “figure things out” along the way tend to demonstrate that ability to their bosses who feel comfortable giving them charge of certain projects or leadership roles faster than other employees.
  • The skills-based approach to learning – the workplace today is changing so fast that only people who can learn, unlearn and relearn skills tend to come out on top. Functional-specific knowledge gets dated soon, and there’s always a new concept or a theory to know. Individuals who have trained themselves in transferrable skills and possess high levels of curiosity, adaptability and willingness to learn end up being able to step into relatively new roles and get up to speed fairly fast
  • Multi-culturalism and diversity of exposure in personal and professional environments – being exposed to multiple cultures and diversity of perspectives brings a certain level of Emotional Intelligence that often helps many millennials navigate a multigenerational and diverse workplace better than older, more traditional employees. This is one of the many experiences that many young leaders attribute to their early success and show in higher levels compared to employees who have been primarily working in one type of environment.
  • Fake-it-till-you-make-it: maybe this was just me (!) but high achievers sometimes don’t like admitting they can’t do something and hence put on a show of confidence and bravado when given a new challenge. While this can be helpful in the initial stages to project confidence and show suitability for a leadership role, they need to be careful it doesn’t spill over into arrogance or not being able to admit when wrong.
  • The instant-gratification of social media – today we get minute-by-minute updates of people’s lives whether we like it or not! While this sometimes tends to push people into a downward spiral of self-comparison, what it does result in actually is a generation of millennial leaders who are strong communicators and understand the value of transparency at the right times, and who know how to build open cultures.

How does it play out in the workplace, or in life?

  • Unable to label your role – there’s a ton of strange career designations and definitions today that are the result of individuals not being able to pick one specific role or department to describe their work. For workplaces that still have traditional structures and hierarchies, this can create confusion and insecurity about their role
  • Unable to articulately explain what you do – this sometimes leads to self-doubt and confusion over the legitimacy of your work when you can’t easily answer the small talk of “Hi! What do you do?” My go-to answer has always been “I get sh** done” or “I’m a firefighter” which I admit isn’t very professional, but there’s a lot that goes behind the scenes of fixing problems, doing what other people don’t have the bandwidth to. Unfortunately, sometimes people see this as a lack of focus on your part.
  • The need to work harder, longer and with fewer mistakes to prove that choosing you wasn’t a mistake – people in unique cross-functional roles sometimes don’t own individual projects end to end or have to pass on work to another team to finish it, leading to feelings of inadequacy about personal achievements, and not having “their thing”.

How can you deal with it?

  • Vulnerability and acceptance – don’t fight too much and try to prove yourself as an equal. You are, and will be different. Find and embrace that aspect. When someone says you don’t have “the experience”, agree with them. And show them how you will figure it out anyway!
  • Continuously solicit feedback – authentically asking for feedback in order to identify areas of improvement is a higher-order leadership skill. Demonstrate your willingness to address gaps in your skillset by soliciting feedback from the right peers, mentors and even junior, not just your boss. You’ll get better by knowing exactly what to do next time.
  • Take said feedback well – it’s one thing to ask for feedback, and another to actually listen to it, not just hear it. Good and genuine feedback can be difficult to hear, but it gives you a roadmap for what you can immediately work on – people who are ready to give you real feedback will want to see you succeed.
  • Look at examples where you were successful – tackle the feeling of “not really knowing what to do” by looking at times when you did know what to do, and you did it the right way. How did you figure it out then? How can you apply those learnings to what you’re dealing with now? Learn from yourself.
  • Recall feedback and appreciation that you’ve received – these are clear examples of people negating those voices of doubt over your abilities. Listen to them and remind yourself every time you question what exactly you’re doing in the room. Maybe you spotted an error in your boss’s presentation, maybe you gave an idea to someone from another team that gave them another perspective. You have had successes already – they just may not be always immediately tied only to your role, but it doesn’t diminish their impact.
  • Break the traditional role of a manager and learn WITH your team, learn FROM them – young millennial leaders are the most common victims of Impostor Syndrome primarily because many of them today lead teams of peers or older and more senior employees. Understand immediately that the role of a manager isn’t to tell their teams what to do, but to enable them to do their best, and you’ll establish a relationship of mutual respect right off the bat.

The best part?

  • You’re a fixer – you can get stuff done! This may result in people asking you to help on some weird and random projects, but embrace it! I helped design my company’s website, tried to run (and failed!) a wine subscription club and redesigned my company’s gift shop. At the time, I was slightly annoyed at being asked to work on projects that I felt had little significance to my “career path” but it showed that people trusted me, which opened many more doors down the road.
  • You may have to spend some time convincing someone, but you will literally be able to do any role offered if you’re interested in it.
  • You have learnt how to work smart, not just work hard.
  • People who see this side in you will trust you implicitly and not question your abilities. That’s a rare place to get to, or a rare boss to find, but will do wonders for your growth. Enough said.
  • Work will never be boring!

Ria Shroff Desai writes on people and culture strategies to help navigate the new workplace and get ready for the Future of Work. Check out her work on LinkedIn!

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