By Yasmina Khelifi, PMI-ACP, PMI-PBA, PMP
Why is it so important to recognize and fight imposter syndrome? Over my project manager career, I have often felt imposter syndrome—especially when I began a new position or started on a new team.
Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes developed the concept, originally termed “imposter phenomenon,” in their 1978 founding study “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women.” Imposter syndrome is defined as “a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one's abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one's ongoing success.”
Let me share with you a painful memory from my early days as a project manager. I was interviewed for a position in a more operational role, and I felt miserable in the interview. I was hesitant, diminishing what I did (“It was a small project”). I was accepted, but I nonetheless began the new role thinking that I was chosen by luck and not because of my accomplishments.
I was going to replace one contractor on a team that was formed by contractors. I lacked so much self-confidence that I asked many silly questions at each step. One day, I needed to retrieve an FTP file, but I didn't have access. I went to one of the contractors, and he told me, "I will not do it for you because you have to learn to do it." I stayed voiceless.
"The excess of humility—appreciated and encouraged in some cultures and countries—does not serve you well!" she told me. “You have to describe fairly and positively what you achieved." It was an eye-opening conversation.
The way you introduce yourself in a new environment can influence your credibility. Over the years, here are some strategies I’ve developed to fight imposter syndrome:
1. Be proud of your achievements.
Focus on what you have achieved so far. I do this in two ways:
I will also put sticky note reminders on my computer with some encouraging words and tips—for example: "Speak slowly and breathe when you speak in English" (as English is not my first language).
Surround yourself with a circle of kind friends you trust and who can give you honest feedback.
Is there a former alumnus from your college you can reconnect with? A former colleague/manager you can talk to from time to time? Do you know a more seasoned project manager you can connect with?
I don’t mention “mentor,” as I have a team of mentors more than a unique mentor. You may also have friends outside of work willing to listen to you—they will help you reframe the situation you’re experiencing.
I’m part of several project management communities at work and through PMI. I’m also a member of some PMI chapters. It’s the place where I turn to when I have doubts.
Don’t stay alone! Others face the same issues as you, and that realization will energize you and push you to find new perspectives.