Debunking assumptions about imposter syndrome

Syndromes among software engineers

We talk a lot about imposter syndrome in the tech community – it’s a term used to describe a feeling of inadequacy and the associated fear of being exposed as a fraud or an ‘imposter’ in your profession, a fear which usually has no basis in reality.

Imposter syndrome is real. I know a lot of professionals who can relate to that feeling, although it is especially common in the tech industry. This is likely to be related to the pervasive cultural myth of the 10x developer and the typical software interview process that requires software engineers to solve arcane brain teasers in front of an audience.

The term imposter syndrome was first coined in a psychological study in 1978 that specifically focused on women in the workplace, and it is often discussed as a phenomenon that impacts women more than men. Some sources even believe it plays a role in the gender pay gap.

However, more and more, researchers are recognising that imposter syndrome impacts men as well as women. I have certainly observed imposter syndrome in my own thought patterns, and have also recognised it in friends and colleagues, both men and women, many of whom have years more experience than I do and are significantly more intelligent than I am.


Mistaken assumptions

While I’m not immune to imposter syndrome, I like to think I’m reasonably competent at my job, and even though feelings of inadequacy occasionally do creep in, they haven’t had a big impact on my day-to-day work. There have been times throughout my career, however, in trying to start a discussion about my performance or raising a concern with managers, it’s been suggested that the root cause of me seeking feedback stems from imposter syndrome or a lack of self confidence. It’s a suggestion that usually comes from empathetic people with genuine intentions who are trying their best to be both kind and helpful. However, this suggestion is not helpful because it makes an assumption about the cause rather than listening to what is often a genuine request for professional feedback. Moreover, I can’t help finding this suggestion incredibly insulting. The implication that I have low self-esteem says a lot more about how this person sees me than how I see myself.

Having only anecdotal evidence (and an acknowledged selection bias), I believe this assumption is most often projected onto young, physically small, or softly-spoken people, especially women. Asking for feedback or raising a concern about performance does not necessarily arise from a lack of confidence. It can simply be a request for ways to help someone to grow professionally.

Dialogues for supporting professional growth

If you’re a people manager or somebody who gives feedback (which should be just about anybody), please consider these strategies to avoid painting tough people management problems as confidence issues:

  • Take requests for feedback at face value. In my experience, the most common and unfortunate segue into conversations about imposter syndrome is the question “how can I get more meaningful feedback on my performance?”Feedback is incredibly important for professional and personal development. Asking for feedback is not fishing for praise or trying to negotiate an annual bonus – it’s necessary for continued improvement, career progression, and personal happiness. Constructive and actionable feedback on my work is extremely valuable to me personally regardless of whether I believe the code I wrote today is the greatest masterpiece of the digital revolution or a heaping pile of garbage.
  • Treat self-assessment as credible. As an individual contributor at various companies, I’ve approached managers in the past with concerns such as “I worry I’m not delivering fast enough to meet our current project deadline.” I’ve had very nice responses to this statement such as “You’re doing great! Don’t worry about it!”, which is generous but not helpful. The more helpful responses use the request as a jumping off point for a discussion about productivity – “I’m not personally concerned if our team misses the deadline by a little bit, but if you’re looking for strategies that might improve your pace, have you thought about pair programming or structured mental breaks?”.

The key difference between these two responses is that the former prioritises that person’s opinions of my work over my concerns, whereas the latter treats my self-evaluation as credible and works with me on an improvement plan.

Of course, there will be times when imposter syndrome may truly be negatively impacting somebody’s work. The best solution is to avoid making assumptions and to keep a two-way communication. There are lots of great resources available on how to support someone if they do open up about experiencing imposter syndrome.

Humans are infinitely more complex than software systems. Feedback, recognition, engineering productivity, and effective management are much tougher problems to solve than any technical challenge. As a software engineer, I have a massive respect for what managers are tasked with, and don’t expect them to do the impossible. Framing feedback with responses such as “I don’t know how to help with that”“Let me think about it and get back to you”, or “¯\(ツ)/¯” are all totally valid answers to difficult questions about performance. Please don’t belittle me by suggesting that the root cause of these tough problems is my imposter syndrome.

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Nicole Rifkin

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