No matter how far into your career you might be, you’re never too old for imposter syndrome to make an appearance. Imposter syndrome is a feeling of inadequacy that persists despite the evident success, according to Harvard Business Review. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraud that override their feelings of success or external proof of their competence. Sound familiar?
So, to level the playing field. Even after years into my career as a product leader and founder, every so often, I too suffer from feeling like an imposter. We sometimes need to make decisions with imperfect information. Despite years of experience in this field, it still feels like I am taking risks as I lead ProductPlan into the unknown.
For example, with a recent project, the data wasn’t playing out the way we expected. We had to decide whether to adjust or stand pat, with no clear “right” answer in front of us. As an expert, I should know how to do all this. However, at that moment, I felt like an imposter. However, I’m not — and neither are you.
Why Product Managers are More Susceptible to Imposter Syndrome
Product managers (PM) are particularly vulnerable to experiencing imposter syndrome. The nature of our profession is nebulous. There a few reasons why product managers might be more susceptible to the feeling.
First, no one gets a degree in “product management.” You don’t train for it. There’s no set path to becoming one. There also isn’t a universal definition of success for product managers. With no pedigree or success validation, it’s natural to feel like an imposter.
Colleagues also look to their product managers to have all the answers. Of course, we don’t have them all—nobody does. But we’re expected to know just enough about everything that we can speak intelligently and have an opinion on nearly every subject. It’s important for our role. This creates very high expectations, which plant the seeds of doubt in our minds.
Product managers also wield power in their organization, even if it’s not always reflected in the org chart. We have an awesome job to decide what’s in and what’s out. Others have input, but view us as the gatekeeper. Unfortunately, that puts a target for blame if things don’t succeed. This fear of letting people down compounds, so we start to second-guess ourselves.
With the weight of the product on our shoulders, we’re the ones to say “no” to various stakeholders. We’ll say no to customer ideas or inform the CEO that their pet project won’t make it onto the roadmap. All while wondering who decided we’re qualified to make that call?
How I Overcame Imposter Syndrome (and How You Can Too)
There’s no magic bullet, but I have found a few things that helped me get over the hump.
1. Humanize your counterparts
Everyone is in the same boat. We’re all human and we all have fears that we have to push through. That means regardless of how much success or failures our peers have had, they’re still putting on their socks one at a time. By humanizing your counterparts, it takes away the fear and intimidation that people are inherently better or more qualified to do your job.
2. Opportunity always comes again
Once it’s done, it’s done. Once a decision is made and acted on, then that ship has sailed. If it works out, great! If it doesn’t work out, there will be another chance to make another decision again. At that point, I’ll have learned from this mistake and be even better. There’s always tomorrow.
3. Nobody knows everything
As disheartening as it is to realize, I will never have all the answers. Nobody knows everything. We’re all always operating with an incomplete data set and no guarantees. That’s not a defense to solely trust our gut and wing it. However, it does mean you need to move forward and believe that you’ve done enough homework to make an educated decision. Inaction due to uncertainty doesn’t breed innovation.
4. Embrace collaboration
Embrace collaboration. The lone wolf product visionary that trusts no one, issues proclamation, and finds success is exceedingly rare. Most successful PMs learn fast that leveraging the knowledge, experience, and instincts of others makes things a lot easier. Not only are you operating with more information, but the decisions you make aren’t yours alone. Moreover, when others are involved in the process, they’re less likely to be resistant to the final decision.
5. Use data to make decisions
Metrics matter. You can use data to make decisions and convince others to get on board. This is a valuable tool for PMs. Not everyone is going to trust you. They might have their preconceptions and biases that you’ll be challenged to sway. However, with an argument based on facts instead of feelings, it’s much easier to build consensus, not to mention instilling confidence that you’re on the right path.
6. Vulnerability shows you have humility
Honesty is the best policy. I prefer to be the person that is open and has good relationships with people versus the one who bulldozes their way through. No one likes a bully or a know-it-all. Don’t be afraid to tell people you’re not positive about something or are still seeking input from others. Others will appreciate if you expose your vulnerability, it shows you have humility.
What I’ve Learned from Overcoming Imposter Syndrome as a Product Manager
Everyone’s trying to figure it out, just like you. Once you realize and accept this, you can be much more empathetic to others. That forgiveness is contagious, and I’m certain will circle back to you.
The only way is to outgrow your doubts. It doesn’t happen overnight. But over time, as you have more successes under your belt and more positive experiences in your rearview, you begin feeling like you belong.
It’s hard to do. But, try to stop caring about what other people think. When you’re confident in your abilities, you know you’re doing good work, and are treating people well then it becomes second nature. Now with all that free time you’ve created for yourself, you can do the fun stuff.
You don’t need that kind of stress. I’ve met plenty of older, successful people that are still racked with worry. Despite all they’ve accomplished, they can’t be content and convinced of their abilities. To them I say, “Relax, you’ve made it this far, and it wasn’t by accident.” Typically, this industry doesn’t put up with underperformers, so if you’ve made progress in your career, then you’re doing something right.
Let your guard down. People can tell when you’re forcing it, so don’t bother putting on airs. You are who you are, and you’ll do a good job or you won’t. Have humility, take the time to figure things out based on the input of others, and have faith that you’ll make the best decisions you can.
You can’t lead or even garner the respect of your development team, you have to believe in yourself. Not unreasonably or unwaveringly, but with general faith in your competence and abilities. Without it, no one’s going to have your back or want to follow you into battle.
Don’t let your insecurities hold you back! If your team didn’t think you could do the job, they wouldn’t work with you. Your requests for help are appreciated and not annoying.
Imposter syndrome is real and unhelpful to your career. Moreover, you can beat it. We’ve all been there. When you make mistakes, you’ll learn from them and be better for it.
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