A Decision Science approach to imposter syndrome starts with the premise that feelings of imposterism might not be triggered by personality attributes but rather by conditions of uncertainty. Many work settings are filled with uncertainty: new roles, new responsibilities, new co-workers, new bosses. And in fast-paced environments, people with growth mindsets are always doing something new. In these new and uncertain situations, past accomplishments may seem less relevant as evidence of competence. Therefore, feeling like an imposter could be a very natural reaction to uncertain expectations - as well as protection against overconfidence bias, which could be much worse.
Yesterday, someone told me I’m probably suffering from imposter syndrome. It wasn’t the first time that's happened, and it wasn’t the first time it rubbed me the wrong way. Yeah, ok, I feel unsure of myself a lot of the time. But I’m not convinced that imposter syndrome is what we think it is. I’m not convinced we’ve totally thought it through.
Imposter syndrome presents itself as an individual-level problem: if you have it, then it's an issue of yours, and you should do the work to fix it. Not that there's judgment in that, but there is an assignment of responsibility - along with the suggestion that there's something negative about feeling that way.
I think there's more to it. Feeling like an imposter may be a reaction to functioning in a new environment, with new people, in a new role, or under a new set of tasks and expectations. And the type of self-doubt usually associated with imposter syndrome may be a powerful antidote to overconfidence bias – which could be way worse.
Let me elaborate on what I mean.
Confidence is a good thing. Overconfidence is not.
Research has shown that many of us, under many circumstances, overestimate our capabilities. We think we know more than the evidence suggests and that we can do more than the evidence shows.
Overconfidence bias is insidious and dangerous. If you think you’re super competent, better at your job than actually is the case – and you don’t stop to doubt it – you could embarrass yourself at a minimum and take down your whole company (or country) at a maximum. You could be operating with inadequate information. You could fail to consider all potential downsides. You will make bad decisions.
Investors have lost a lot of money because of overconfidence bias. Executives have taken down entire companies. And new employees fresh out of college have soiled their professional reputations by acting like they know as much as seasoned professionals.
And they do this without even knowing it: when your bias discourages you from doubting yourself, you can't see what you're missing.
In other words, confidence keeps us going; overconfidence bites us in the ass.
It’s rational to feel like an imposter – when you’re pushing yourself.
If overconfidence bias is such a problem, then we need an antidote. Enter imposter syndrome.
Overconfidence bias and imposter syndrome spring from the same source: conditions of uncertainty. Think of it this way: at work, there’s the stuff we do that we’re familiar with, and then there’s the stuff that’s new to us. When we’re doing stuff we’re familiar with, uncertainty is low. We know what to expect, we know what success looks like, and we know how to achieve it. Easy peasy.
When we’re involved in unfamiliar situations – like when we push outside our comfort zones – we’re thrust into environments of higher uncertainty. We aren’t quite sure what’s around the bend. We don’t yet know what success looks like, so we don’t know how to achieve it.
We legitimately don't have enough information. We haven’t gotten there yet.
By definition, imposter syndrome occurs when feelings of inferiority aren't supported by evidence. But sometimes our brains trick us into thinking that we have evidence when we really don't. (Look up "WYSIATI" in Thinking Fast and Slow for more on this.) Specifically, performing well on tasks you're familiar with is no guarantee that you'll do just as well with something new. And if you work in a fast-paced environment, or if you have a growth mindset, you’re almost always onto something new.
Which means it's natural to often be in doubt. It’s reasonable, in those circumstances, to ask: “Am I really qualified? Can I really do this? I’m seeing little wins, but if I’m too new to this situation to know how wins happen, how do I know they’re not due to luck?” Because even if you have a rich professional history full of successes, when it comes to a new role, task, or challenge, you really have no data. Evidence of past accomplishments may not be worth much once you’ve leveled-up. (Getting straight A’s in high school doesn’t guarantee straight A’s in college.)
Also, doubt is better than overconfidence. Because another way many people go when dealing with uncertainty is convincing themselves, absent the evidence, that they’re more than competent to get the job done. And we’ve already discussed the drawbacks of that.
If you have a growth mindset and don’t feel like an imposter, you may be at risk.
Next time you’re feeling like an imposter at work, ask yourself: “Am I performing a task I’ve never done before? Am I outside of my comfort zone? Am I pushing myself to grow?” I'm not sure it's fair to tell the many people who constantly challenge themselves - many of whom are women and minorities - that feeling like an outsider means they've got another problem to solve. Maybe it's not a problem. Maybe it's a natural reaction to an uncertain situation.
And maybe the situation is the problem. Maybe your environment isn't providing you enough information to be helpful. Maybe your environment is stoking uncertainty - unnecessarily.
I, for one, am happy to live with self-doubt. I'm comfortable with it. I'm ok being a fraud sometimes; it either means I'm pushing, I'm in an unhealthy place I might need to get out of, or I'm free of overconfidence.
I feel myself; don't get me wrong. I know what I'm about and I know what I can do. But when I don't, I fake it until I make it. I'm honest about it. And that's just how I'm gonna roll.
Reach out to learn more about how Kabiri Consulting can help you handle conditions of uncertainty at work.