Do you suffer from nagging feelings of professional inadequacy that aren’t backed up by evidence? That, my friends, would be imposter syndrome. You may have heard the term discussed in the developer world, and with good reason. Staying relevant in an ever-changing digital world is a mighty feat; there’s far more to learn than a dev’s brain could ever absorb. Add in pressure to continuously solve complex code problems or track down pesky bugs, and the senior developer with a decade or more of experience still feels behind the curve every bit as much as a junior developer.
But developers aren’t the only ones affected by this fateful menace. Psychologists coined the term long before the modern web, and us project managers require every bit as much learning and strategic thinking to be successful. It’s time those of us responsible for managing projects started talking about imposter syndrome, too. Shall we?
I’m a fraud, you’re a fraud. It’s cool.
When I got my start in digital project management, my company put me on a large project for a big-name client almost immediately. “Bring it on,” I said—only, I found I had to make things up on the go, which made me uncomfortable. Early in the project, a tiny seed began to take root: the possibility that I might fail. By the time launch approached, I was convinced that I had missed something that would derail the entire project. My fears lacked any basis in reality, but my imposter syndrome was so severe that I began applying for other jobs anyway. I guess I was preparing for the crushing defeat that seemed headed my way. In the end, the project was a resounding success that led to a happy ongoing client relationship. Over that span, I learned priceless ways to acknowledge and address my fear and discomfort. Interestingly, during subsequent years of managing even bigger projects and leading a project management team, that toothless fear never disappeared completely, but my self-awareness meant I could significantly minimize its impact.
Fast forward to early 2015 when I took a senior digital producer role at a new organization. They hired me on the premise of being an experienced, competent digital producer. On paper that’s absolutely what I am, yet again I questioned whether I was a fraud. Even with my understanding of imposter syndrome and a healthy dose of self-confidence, I was paranoid that my previous experience wouldn’t amount to real success. It took months to settle in, and even now I fight fleeting moments of the voice in the back of my head telling me I’m going to fail.
The project manager variant of imposter syndrome is a particularly nasty one. Unlike the developer whose deliverables are ultimately lines of code that either work or don’t work, we lack full control over the outcomes of our efforts because we rely on our teams and clients coming through on their part of the bargain. There are hundreds of factors impacting the success or failure of a project that we influence but don’t fully control, and project manager types tend to crave nothing more than control. My friends don’t call me a control freak, but I certainly feel a strong correlation between my confidence level and the amount of control I have over a project’s outcome.
I did an informal peer survey with friends and colleagues. It told me that project manager imposter syndrome is a universal thing. We all encounter these fears. Consider yourself the ambitious, high-achiever type? Congrats! You’re even more likely to experience imposter syndrome.1
But why me?
We’re human, and we work with teams of humans. Some of them amaze us; others seriously disappoint. Our fate is in their hands and in our ability to help them deliver a win for everyone. Projects require us to roll up our sleeves and get dirty; our continual struggle is to keep things clean while the dirt piles up. Fighting that uphill battle is a grind.
The fact is, some circumstances tend to leave you with the gut-wrenching sensation of imposter syndrome more than others:
When you’re new to project management
You’re unconsciously incompetent (AKA you don’t know what you don’t know) so it feels like failure lurks in all directions.
When you’re onboarding at a new organization
Your previous experience built up your confidence, yet the new environment leads you to question your abilities.
When you’re leading a doomed project
Too many projects spell trouble from the start, and often the only form of success is minimizing the failure.
When projects are on cruise control
Autopilot projects gather nasty project battle scars and create sour paranoia over good projects.
What’s worse than the situations that make us feel like imposters? The symptoms they produce. Sometimes we overreact on impulse. We scramble to do more, over plan for scenarios A through Z, and eventually end up burnt out. Other times we do the exact opposite. We feel paralyzed over decisions, go through the motions while performing low-value work, fall back on rote processes instead of thinking strategically, and ultimately turn to apathy to suppress fear and stress. The primary factor impacting how we act when imposter syndrome strikes is our engagement (or a lack of it). Not surprisingly, one scenario often follows the next, leading us to suffer a fiery burnout and a more apathetic approach to the work the next time around.
We didn’t start the fire
Our external environment plays a huge role in how we experience and tackle imposter syndrome, and the organizations we work for are the most important piece of that puzzle. The best employers create a safe environment for project managers to share their fears without retribution and treat failure as a learning opportunity. The worst pull the classic throw the project manager under the bus maneuver and undermine team trust when projects might have succeeded otherwise. Too many organizations in our industry fall in the latter camp. To leadership reading this: we need you to do better.
We’ll all benefit when we collectively fight imposter syndrome. The personal benefits are obvious, but at a business level, turnover has a very real impact on the bottom line.2 Project management teams at many digital organizations turn over every one to two years; that’s bad for all of us. It’s unfortunate that when PMs burn out it also leads to them taking significant time off or becoming apathetic and quitting. Let’s all work to solve this problem by understanding that project failures are nearly always too complex to pin on any one person. More importantly, we need to create better onboarding experiences and nurture our junior project managers. No more “trial by fire” or “sink or swim” hazing, please.
Do more than just survive your imposter syndrome
Our employers play a vital role in overcoming our own fears, but let’s talk about where we can make the biggest immediate impact:
Self-care is critical for project managers.
If this article is describing you and you’re at a loss for what to do next, first remember that you’re not alone. Your peers can relate, so put yourself out there and be vulnerable by talking about the scary stuff; they’ll reciprocate. The simple act of sharing your imposter syndrome experience and increasing awareness minimizes its universal impact. When it comes to your peers, PMs are often skilled at the art of poker face, but we can all look for subtle cracks when they form and offer each other some help.
In terms of your mental health and wellbeing, remember that short bursts of positive stress are a good thing to spur action, but sustained stress compounded by a lack of control over the ability to reduce that stress is toxic. There’s plenty you can do to make things better. Your cognitive load3 grows throughout the duration of each project, so create personal organizational systems to avoid getting blindsided towards the end of a project. When it comes to burnout, spend your paid time off proactively on vacation so you don’t waste it all later on sick days. Exercise, sleep well, eat healthy foods—you’ve heard it all before. But if the source of your stress is imposter syndrome, you need to tackle the issue directly.
If you’re new to a job or to the profession, be patient with yourself and find an organization that promotes mentorship and education. The learning curve is steep; expect several project life cycles to pass before you’re fully on top of things.
Next, try to fight your control freak nature. Embrace the lack of control and learn to enjoy a little risk in your life to keep things spicy. I’m not talking Alex Honnold free-solo levels of risk, but appreciate the messy bits of project wrangling, and be sure to learn something when failure happens. Project management is not life or death, and more often than not you’ll come back stronger and more tamper resistant.
Finally, when you see hints of failure on your projects (whether real or imaginary), call it like you see it. If your organization is supportive and you feel able to share concerns early which they reassure you against or act upon accordingly, trust is earned both ways. If not, challenge leadership to be better. If that doesn’t work, find a new job! Your employer should never be the primary fuel feeding your fear.
The best thing about feeling imposter syndrome-related anxiety? It means you still care. Step back and evaluate your win/loss record compared to the industry average.4 You’re probably doing pretty well. The more you reflect on your dark passenger, the more you learn to cope. Yes, sometimes you’ll have to “fake it ‘til you make it,” but whatever you do, avoid giving in to apathy.
Bottom line: we’re all in this together. Let’s undermine our fear by giving it a name: imposter syndrome. You’re not a fraud, and you don’t need to feel like one.