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Jan-2024

Navigating impostor syndrome in product management

Learn practical strategies from one of Workable's own product managers to overcome self-doubt, harness your strengths, and build unshakable confidence, guiding you from feeling like an impostor to becoming an empowered leader.

Anthoula Poniraki
Anthoula Poniraki

Anthoula is a Senior Product Manager at Workable with a diverse background in the tech industry.

impostor syndrome

Have you ever felt like you’re navigating the product management jungle, dodging obstacles left and right, only to be interrupted by a persistent whisper: “Do I really belong here?” If that rings a bell, then welcome to the world of impostor syndrome – a feeling that you’re not as capable or accomplished as others perceive you to be.

Curious about what drives this doubt-filled companion or how widespread it is in the vast tech and product landscape? Well, buckle up because we’re about to dive deep into the mysteries of impostor syndrome. We’ll uncover surprising stats, unveil stories from successful people, and take a stroll through my own garden of impostor moments.

Oh, and did I mention we’re also armed with some savvy tips to outsmart that sneaky impostor syndrome? Let the adventure commence!

Impostor syndrome: a deeper look

Impostor syndrome is like an annoying sidekick on the journey of success. It’s that nagging feeling that you’re not truly deserving of your accomplishments, attributing your success to luck rather than skill. Imagine a friend patting you on the back, and that little voice in your head whispering, “They’re all going to find out I’m not as good as they think.”

Yeah, that’s impostor syndrome for you – always ready to cast doubt on your abilities.

Impostor syndrome by the numbers

Let’s talk numbers. Valerie Young, a prominent expert and author of a groundbreaking book on impostor syndrome, shared studies showing that 70% to 84% of people experience impostor feelings at some point in their lives.

That’s right, the majority of us grapple with this internal struggle. This statistic acts as a mirror, reflecting the internal struggles that many product managers – among other professionals – silently confront. It dispels the misconception that impostor syndrome is an isolated or uncommon phenomenon.

Rather, it highlights the universal nature of these feelings and emphasizes the importance of fostering a supportive and understanding community within the product management sphere.

It’s not a flaw but a shared experience, highlighting the need for an open conversation about it.

You’re in good company here

Even Sheryl Sandberg, the former COO of Meta, faced impostor syndrome despite her impressive resume. She writes in her book, “Lean In“:

“Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself – or even excelled – I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”

“Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself – or even excelled – I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”

Juggling the demands of leadership and motherhood, Sheryl constantly grappled with perfectionism. The fear of not meeting societal expectations added to her internal struggle.

However, Sandberg leaned into vulnerability, coining the term ‘leaning in.’ By acknowledging imperfections, she reshaped her narrative and became a beacon for breaking the glass ceiling.

Ed Lazowska, who served as the Chair of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, once shared:

“I have this sense of being an impostor, and the only reassurance I have is that no one has uncovered me in the past 40 years. Therefore, the likelihood of being exposed in the next few weeks seems quite low.”

If someone as seasoned as Ed and Sheryl can admit to these feelings for decades, it’s totally normal for the rest of us to have our own moments of self-doubt, right?

In the product management realm, leaders like Andreessen Horowitz cofounder and partner Ben Horowitz and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation chairperson Melinda Gates have also openly discussed their battles with impostor syndrome, emphasizing that success doesn’t always silence the nagging voice of self-doubt. And the list goes on.

My own journey with impostor syndrome

Now, let’s shift gears and get personal. How could I not be part of that 70%? In fact, I’ve danced with impostor syndrome more times than I’d care to admit, especially in the beginning of my career in product management.

Picture this: I’ve been there, questioning my ability to lead those cross-functional dream teams and wondering if I truly embody the decision-making prowess I aim for. It’s a rollercoaster of frustration and humility, trust me.

One memorable instance was during one of my first high-stakes product launches, back in my days living in London, where I found myself doubting every strategic move I had made. I mean, who invited impostor syndrome to the party, right? But here’s the plot twist – acknowledging those feelings and reaching out for support turned out to be the smartest move.

Leading up to that launch, I faced the classic impostor whispers, questioning if I had what it takes. It’s a story as old as time in the product management world. And you know what? It’s OK to feel that way. The magic happened when I decided to spill the tea and share my uncertainties with my mentor.

Impostor syndrome is a superpower

Turns out, vulnerability isn’t a kryptonite; it’s a secret weapon. Those heart-to-heart conversations shed light on my strengths, reminding me that leadership isn’t about having all the answers but embracing growth and adaptation.

Many years later, my journey with impostor syndrome has taught me that seeking support is not a sign of weakness but a smart strategy. It’s like having a reliable co-pilot on your journey – someone to help you navigate, find your way, and keep you on track.

So, if you’re in the midst of your own adventure with impostor syndrome, remember, it’s not about having all the answers but enjoying the voyage and picking up valuable insights along the way.

Let’s pull back the curtain on another chapter of my product management adventure. Imagine this – leading a diverse team felt like tiptoeing through a maze of self-doubt for me. Questions like “Am I steering this ship in the right direction?” and “Do I really have what it takes to lead this squad?” were on constant replay.

Related: What is inclusive leadership?

But here’s the secret sauce: open communication, trust-building, and realizing that leadership is a journey, not a destination. It’s like being the captain of a ship where everyone has their own set of skills and expertise. I learned that fostering an environment where team members feel heard and valued is the compass that keeps us sailing smoothly.

And you know what? The best leaders are the perpetual learners. Embracing the fact that leadership is an ongoing learning journey took the weight off my shoulders. It’s not about having all the answers; it’s about figuring it out together with your crew.

Your impostor syndrome survival kit

Fear not – I have a survival kit that works for me, and I’ll share it with you right now.

1. Embrace your wins

Create a victory log. Jot down your achievements, big or small. When impostor thoughts creep in, revisit this log to remind yourself of your capabilities

2. Seek feedback and validation

Don’t shy away from feedback; embrace it! Reach out to your team, stakeholders, or mentors for validation. Sometimes, an external perspective can be the reality check you need.

3. Flip the script

Challenge negative thoughts by reframing them positively. Instead of thinking, “I don’t deserve this role,” say, “I’ve worked hard to get here, and I bring valuable skills to the table.”

4. Cultivate a growth mindset

Acknowledge that learning is a lifelong journey. Embrace challenges as opportunities to grow rather than signs of inadequacy.

5. Connect with the community

Share your experiences with fellow PMs. You’ll likely find that impostor feelings are more common than you think. Together, we can lift each other up.

So, dear Product Managers, the next time the impostor syndrome decides to drop by unannounced, consider inviting it in for a friendly cup of tea. Share a smile, acknowledge its presence, and then gracefully show it the door.

Why? Because, you’ve earned every bit of your seat at that table. Your unique skills, experiences, and innovative ideas are like secret spices that enrich the collective flavor of your team and the entire product management world.

Let impostor syndrome be a momentary visitor, not a permanent resident. Show it out with a smile, and as you do, affirm to yourself that your presence, insights, and contributions are not only valid but eagerly welcomed. The world of product management is better with you in it, bringing your own magic to the mix!

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