Let’s face it, product management can be a thankless job. And when things are going badly you bear the brunt of the blame. You can create a litany of issues for yourself – your requirements weren’t clear, the strategy wasn’t well-articulated, the documentation wasn’t sufficient, you didn’t provide marketing or sales with the proper positioning…stop me if you’ve heard these before. And, when things are going really well, your role winds up falling into the background. No one notices the facilitating and maneuvering, planning and plotting that backlog, nailing the estimates and schedule. The overflow of negative attention without the positive reinforcement can seep into our self-image and become something known as “imposter syndrome”.
Imposter syndrome occurs when we externalize our successes, rather than internalizing them. People often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability. They fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud. Then, they deny that their success is related to their own ability. People with imposter syndrome also tend to internalize their failures — taking all of that negative feedback and attributing it to something not being right with them.
So, what often happens? Product managers will overwork and burnout. Overworking is one observed and self-perceived pattern of the imposter syndrome. Overworking becomes problematic when the amount of effort and energy invested in a task exceeds that for producing work of reasonable quality, and interferes with other priorities.
Recognizing the Warning Signs
As with any kind of self-reinforcing bias, the best way to ensure that you don’t fall victim to imposter syndrome is by understanding how it presents itself in the Product Management context:
When someone gives you a compliment, you deflect it rather than just saying, “Thank you.”
When you succeed in delivering something, you attribute that success less to your own ability and more to timing, luck, or others involved. You have a nagging feeling that others will “discover” that you really aren’t qualified to do the job you’ve been hired to do. You avoid opportunities to demonstrate your actual competencies and skills, for fear that someone who sees these demonstrations will “call you out” for your perceived deceptions.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of looking critically at how you respond to the daily successes and failures that you will encounter in your role as a Product Manager. Do you internalize the failures and externalize the successes? Then, you might be suffering from some amount of imposter syndrome.
Pulling Yourself Out of the Dive
If you’ve identified the traits or behaviors that may indicate that you’re dealing with some amount of imposter syndrome, it requires a lot of self-discipline and a decent amount of self-examination to pull yourself out of the spiral. This is because, the more you externalize your successes, the more you minimize your own skills and talents; this minimization leads to misses and mistakes, which feeds the internalization of the negative outcomes.
First, know that you’re qualified for the job you’re doing. Seriously. You wouldn’t have the job that you do in this market if you weren’t qualified or capable of doing it. Assuming that you’re not on a performance plan, and you’re achieving at least moderate success in your role, then you’re not an imposter.
Second, be mindful of how you’re responding to both successes and failures, and whenever you find yourself externalizing successes and/or internalizing failures, stop and think about why you’re doing so. Force yourself to do a quick mental retrospective on what led to the success, how involved you were, and what you contributed to the outcome. Stopping to think about where you’re at and how you got there is a small and very effective way to check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Additionally, know that you’re not alone. Nearly every person I know of who has taken a position of authority or leadership has, at one point or another, doubted their abilities and felt like an imposter. These situations are where it becomes important and extremely helpful to have an external mentor, to act as your “reality check” when you’re starting to have these kinds of self-doubting thoughts. Having a reliable and reasonable external check on your achievements and talents is perhaps the best way to control for those endemic impostor thoughts.
See the Gift Inside Your Imposter Syndrome
Perhaps one of the more difficult challenges is to see the benefits of imposter syndrome. For example, having imposter syndrome keeps you humble. Someone who is questioning their value is very unlikely to be a narcissist or an egomaniac. Furthermore, questioning your own value helps you identify opportunities for growth in the future.
Before you can grow into something, you first must be aware of your own weaknesses. That awareness can help you avoid blind spots as you look to build out your action plans. While the fear itself has little to no value, when imposter syndrome shows up, it’s best to acknowledge it and see it for what it is. An opportunity to step back and look at where you are at this moment in time.
It’s really important to recognize that all of this is a journey and that the position you’re in is not the end. If feel that you’re undeserving of the position you currently find yourself in, sometimes the best thing to do is accept where you’re at. Schedule some time to revisit how you feel three months from now. As you continue to grow into your opportunity, you’re likely to become more comfortable with both your strengths and the weaknesses you can continue to work through.
Everyone has coping strategies, and as long as your individual coping strategies are healthy and productive, then ultimately it’s best to keep forging ahead. Congratulations on making it to where you are today. You deserve all of that success and more.