Imagine walking into a packed conference room (or jumping on a zoom call) for a meeting on a pressing topic. As you find your seat, you start to feel like the temperature is rising and your heartbeat quickens, your mind races through the questions that could be thrown your way. The meeting starts and things begin on a good note. The discussion is moving forward and then it happens: someone directs a question at you. It feels like a game of hot potato and all you want to do is get that question out of your hands! You answer quickly, gauging the faces in the room as you respond, wondering who here will expose you as a complete and total fraud.
As two designers new to the tech and product space, we both have had our fair share of experiences with imposter syndrome. Shara is a high achiever, woman of color who made the switch to tech late in her career. Attending bootcamp with peers 10 years her junior, she often felt insecurity about her decision to transition into product design. Would anyone take her seriously? Madeline spent over 7 years working in documentary film. When she wasn’t filming interviews, she was cleaning camera lenses. Making a complete career shift into UX design not only felt like she was jumping into a deep ocean without any swimming lessons, but that she was up against olympians with established records and achievements.
Conquering Imposter Syndrome
Many of us have felt that familiar feeling: the fear of being exposed or being seen as incompetent or incapable to our peers. That feeling is imposter syndrome. It’s an internal experience of feeling inadequate and phony, compounded by the feeling that we don’t belong. The assumption that one’s achievements are dumb luck often takes the place of feeling accomplished.
Imposter syndrome can cripple the confidence of the most established professionals. The phenomenon can induce a lack of confidence, depression, and anxiety, not to mention missed professional opportunities. Have you ever turned down a speaking engagement or not raised your hand to lead a special project? Our inner critic can keep us from taking on tasks that can propel us forward and stunt our professional growth. That false narrative may sound like this:
“I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“No one is going to take me seriously.”
“I think they’re going to find out that I’m a total fraud.”
“Glad that worked out. Pure luck I guess.”
So, how does this impact our future? Understanding imposter syndrome, what it is and who it affects, allows us to empathize, recognize triggering situations, and reframe the perception of self so that we can actively work towards changing the narrative.
Personality assessments offer clues about our behaviors and our relationship with self that unlock valuable insights. Shara’s go-to assessment is 16 Personalities. This assessment dives deep into general tendencies, our relationship with others, where we thrive and struggle in the workplace, and touch on our parenting tendencies. There is also the DISC assessment and the Enneagram. The DISC assessment Breaks down four main personality profiles: (D)ominance, (I)nfluence, (S)teadiness, and (C)onscientiousness. Assessment results will outline our behavioral style, motivational style, and drivers exposing how we prefer to get things done and why we’re motivated to do them. Similarly, Enneagram is a system of nine interconnected personality types that outline how we interpret the world and manage our emotions. Truity has all these assessments in one place, complete with blogs and other resources to leverage. Shara’s motto is to take what’s helpful and leave the rest.
Framing Challenges with “5 Whys”
The “5 Whys” technique, often used in UX Research, can help us discover the root of the problem we are facing. This method helps us better understand where a challenge stems by uncovering blockers that continue to persist in our life. For example, Madeline found that she persistently held back and didn’t speak up in large meetings with key stakeholders. With this exercise, Madeline was able to identify the reason why she stayed quiet during meetings: she held an underlying assumption that she shouldn’t speak on issues because she had never talked about them in front of the group before. With clarity around the root problem, Madeline was able to take back control over the deception she had been unwittingly telling herself.
When we are working to silence our inner imposter, gaining outside perspectives is a great way to grasp a variety of perspectives aside from our own. A collection of feedback from direct reports, peers, managers, and senior leaders, the 360-degree review is a great way to dispel assumptions we have about our contributions to our teams. Using Google Forms, Typeform or SurveyMonkey, we can quickly compose a survey to collect unbiased perspectives. Ask peers, ‘When working with Madeline, how would you describe her interpersonal skills?” Let the inner UX researcher conduct interviews for quick access to feedback. We might gain perspective on our efficiency and ask if our approach is seen as effective, and consistently improving. Oftentimes, we’ll find that our colleagues have a different perception of ourselves. The imposter may feel that we are not completing tasks efficiently, but our colleagues actually see us as a pragmatic and thorough problem solver.
Hire a Career Coach
Coaching offers an opportunity to dive deeply into our strengths, opportunities, and our relationship with ourselves. A career coach helps establish our coaching goals, identify self-sabotaging behaviors and destructive patterns, and gain insights that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Working with a coach has given Shara a clear understanding of her leadership strengths, her communication style, and a heightened self awareness. She feels empowered to own her career and a vision of the type of leader she wants to be.
Additionally, identify a mentor, someone to trust and respect in or around an area of expertise, who can provide transparent and direct feedback. Mentors help direct us towards opportunities for growth and keep us from straying down unproductive paths. A potential mentor could be a former manager, a leader within our current organization, or even a LinkedIn connection. Casually reach out to them to begin developing a relationship. It’s a process! The dynamic between mentee and mentor will evolve over time. Be sure to be prompt to meetings, have clearly defined topics to discuss, and always thank them for their time.
Journaling is a great vehicle for cathartic expression and reflection. With consistency, this exercise reveals patterns and trends, exposing the origins of fraudulent imposter feelings. In her journal, Shara captures significant events that occurred during the week. Her journal helps uncover patterns that would otherwise go unnoticed, like incessant feelings of insecurity when presenting and defending her designs. By identifying patterns, Shara overcomes her own challenges of imposter syndrome. Build consistency by creating a journaling habit. A successful habit consists of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. For Madeline, her cue is to journal on Fridays, the routine is to reflect for 5 minutes, and the reward is to step away from her desk and have a cup of tea. Creating new habits can be difficult, but strong habits are realistically reproducible. Start with simple micro-commitments to build a journaling routine into an effective habit. Ultimately, journaling is a low-fidelity method to reflect and uncover patterns, and highlight themes that reveal the moments when our inner critic shows up.
Architecting Your Future
Imposter syndrome is complex and can show itself at any stage in our careers. We can leverage these methods and tools to help us understand and conquer the falsehoods we unconsciously hold onto. With each gained perspective, we reclaim some control over our deceptions and take action to become the architects of our futures.
Madeline Packard and Shara Rosenbalm are presenting a workshop on this topic at the 2021 Information Architecture Conference. They'll explore design methods and offer a few tools to battle imposter syndrome and subdue your inner fraud.