Project Management

Do You Foster Imposter Syndrome in Your Team?

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By Yasmina Khelifi, PMI-ACP, PMI-PBA, PMP

I recently touched upon fighting imposter syndrome, which we can all suffer from as project managers. But as a leader, and even as a colleague, we can also unintentionally foster impostor syndrome on our teams. Let’s review three ways I’ve observed (and unfortunately practiced) this over my career—and what we can do about it.

1. Credentials and work experience don’t define human beings

Many years ago, I worked with a project manager who managed a strategic account. I was skeptical of our ability to lead; she was not an engineer, and she didn’t have a technical academic background.

As always, I had many ideas and began to regularly push them—and to ask many questions. I always have suggestions on how to do things differently—in other words, my way. I also talked with contempt to show her that (I thought) she was not a legitimate candidate for the position. My behavior stressed her out.

I've often heard this concern: "I'm not considered as a project manager even though I'm a PMP certified and I've been doing the work for a while". That’s the kind of comment that can shutter self-confidence.

When I took on a new role, a woman on the team told me: “You were chosen because you can speak Arabic.” I cannot speak Arabic (neither do I understand it), and I was hurt because she negated—unintentionally—my skills as a project manager.

How can we improve? Work doesn’t define you completely as a human being. It’s important that when team members introduce themselves, you don’t focus just on their academic credentials and work experience; listen when they share what they like outside of work, and what they struggle with. Understand how they aim to contribute to the team and what added value they bring beyond academic degrees.

2. Start with the positive

Are you always objective? Do you always provide criticism or feedback on something from a factual perspective, or might it differ depending on who developed the work?

When a colleague enthusiastically shows you something they have done and your first response is, “It's good, but...,” that can dampen their enthusiasm and spirit—especially if relates to an area where they lack confidence.

For instance, I’ve improved my skills in PowerPoint, but I still feel insecure about them. So if a colleague modifies a lot of my presentations, it reinforces my inner voice that I’m not good with the application.

How can we improve? Simply asking people to redo things doesn’t help them improve; be sure to use positive reinforcement and explain what needs to be improved, with some best practices or guidelines. This way you help your colleague grow.

3. Follow good role models

In workplaces where technical expertise is valued and technical resources are needed, we sometimes overlook inacceptable behaviors. For instance, a technical expert silencing a less technically savvy colleague in front of everyone, highlighting that what was said was wrong. Or talking with a very authoritative voice, as if giving an order. These types of behaviors should not be followed or encouraged.

How can we improve? Ask yourself: Does my comment add value to the problem that needs solving? Is this an intellectual debate? Or is it a personal attack or an ego booster?

In what ways have you fostered impostor syndrome in your teams? Share your comments below.


Posted by Yasmina Khelifi on: May 25, 2022 02:22 AM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Dear Yasmina

The topic that you brought to our reflection and debate was very interesting.

Thanks for sharing and for your comments.

Nice topic and good insight.

Great topic, but this debate is far from over. Thank you so much.

Dear Luis, thank you for your great feedback as always. Take care Yasmina

Hi Waqas, thank you for taking the time to read my post. take care Yasmina

Hi Cheikh thank you for your feedback!

Interesting topic and article, thank you very much for sharing. This type of article makes me look back and realize that I made unhelpful or even damaging comments about someone else's work, especially when I was coaching some students and they perform in their way and not my, I used to comments which could be "the correct one". Thanks!

Thanks for your writing on imposter syndrome. Honestly speaking though I was familiar with the word imposter wasn't familiarised with the imposter syndrome before reading your article. Unfortunately, over my career I was in both sides of this syndrome and your article has raised my consciousness and will make me more cautious while it comes to commenting on team members works.

Great writeup on Imposter syndrome. I grew up in a success driven family with high goal focus. When i would come third in my class, my dad would ask "what about the other two ahead of you?" This made me to be over conscious of achievement and being the first or top or 100%.
As a project team lead i carried that mentality of " great job but you could've done better" I guess that encouraged Imposter syndrome in my team members but my change started when i attended PMI EMEA Congress 2018 in Berlin. I now have "You Made My Day" gratitude cards to encourage people.

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