Imposer Syndrome Doesn't ExistFostering Empathy in Product Management - The Myth of Imposter Syndrome
10 years ago the day hadn’t started well. As a product strategist at one of the FAANG companies I was due to present a prototype to a VIP stakeholder and had arrived at the wrong office. My mobile network wasn’t working so I couldn’t order an Uber. Jumping in a black cab a vast cloud of doom descended over me. I was useless. My ideas pointless. The morning’s failings so far were simply there to underpin my incompetence. I felt like a fraud. With 5 minutes to spare I arrived at the correct location, did some breathing exercises and then to my horror, a text from my developer arrived on my phone ‘Sorry I can’t get that working at 9…’
I’d read enough. Surely this was the final straw? Imposter syndrome hit me with full force. How could I escape the meeting? How was I possibly going to get out of this?
Entering the meeting room (which was so cold I started shivering) I sat down, each minute ticking by like the domesday clock. Another text hit my phone ‘I have to walk to the office, will be 2 mins’.
My developer had simply told me that the live enviornment he’d needed to fire up would be two minutes late. Adrenalin started to flow through me. I began my presentation, worried I’d not even be able to speak. Five minutes later the stakeholder was blown away (She was a few steps down from the CEO, it was a big deal). The fully functioning progressive web app that we’d thrown together over the past few weeks was a hit. But literally 20 minutes prior I’d lost all my confidence.
Impostor syndrome, also known as impostor phenomenon or impostorism, is a psychological occurrence in which people doubt their skills, talents, or accomplishments and have a persistent [internalised](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internalizing_disorder) fear of being exposed as frauds. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon do not believe they deserve their success or luck.” (Source Wikipedia)
Imposter Syndrome has long been considered a pervasive challenge in the workplace, particularly in product management. But I want to challenge the notion that imposter syndrome is something that resembles an affliction or affects only a subset of people. Instead, it’s a shared human experience deeply embedded in the fabric of professional life.
The Rise of Product-Led Growth
Understanding Imposter Syndrome in Product Management: A Collective Struggle
In product development, where innovation and excellence are non-negotiable, the pressure to deliver outstanding results often magnifies feelings of inadequacy. Product teams may grapple with self-doubt, questioning their ability to meet ever-evolving challenges. However, acknowledging that everyone, even seasoned leaders, faces moments of uncertainty reframes Imposter Syndrome as a collective challenge rather than an individual struggle. Another unfortunate situation that product teams have to endure is repetitive failure. As I illustrated in my last post, it is really only by ‘doing’ that you can evolve as a product practitioner. Often less experienced product managers or strategists rely solely on theory to validate assumptions rather than empirical thinking. This is a recipe for disaster when it comes to imposter syndrome! The inexperienced PM may start to question the books they are reading, ‘Did this really work? Is it all nonsense? How can I succeed?!’ Without having actually shipped something successful or been part of that journey they may struggle with the day to day assertion that they’re on the right path.
How can we help our teams with what they may be going through?
The Chief Product Officer’s Role: Cultivating a Culture of Empathy
As leaders in the product space, Chief Product Officers must set the tone by fostering a culture of empathy within their teams. Here are some key strategies:
1. Normalise Vulnerability: Sharing Leadership Stories
Share personal experiences of doubt and vulnerability in leadership roles. By recounting instances where you navigated uncertainty, you create a space where team members feel comfortable expressing their concerns without fear of judgment.
2. Encourage Open Communication: Breaking Down Barriers
Foster an environment where team members feel safe discussing their challenges openly. Transparent conversations dismantle the illusion of perfection, allowing for a more collaborative and supportive culture.
Companies like Google promote “Fail Week,” where employees share their professional failures, promoting a culture of openness and learning.
3. Recognise Achievements: Celebrating Successes
Regularly acknowledge and celebrate individual and team accomplishments. Recognising achievements, big and small, helps team members appreciate their contributions and builds confidence in their abilities.
Atlassian’s “ShipIt Days” allow teams to work on passion projects, fostering a culture of innovation and recognising individual and collective achievements.
4. Provide Growth Opportunities: Nurturing Continuous Learning
Empower your team with opportunities for skill development. A commitment to continuous learning shifts the focus from perceived inadequacies to the excitement of personal and professional growth.
Amazon’s “Career Choice” program funds up to 95% of tuition for employees pursuing courses in high-demand fields, emphasising a dedication to employee growth.
5. Mentorship and Peer Support: Building Networks of Understanding
Establish mentorship programs and encourage peer support. Connecting individuals who have overcome similar challenges creates a network of understanding, helping team members navigate their own journey.
Salesforce’s “BOLDforce” is an employee-led resource group that supports Black professionals, providing mentorship and fostering a sense of community.
By labelling or judging we can limit our opportunities. I admired Steve Jobs but I do not recall him ever mentioning imposter syndrome in his thoughts on his career. Rather he was open about his failures and his resilience to overcome them. He was in fact his harshest critic. This is why I’m advocating more for a deep understanding of people rather than simply slapping a ‘condition’ on their behaviour or fears.
Building up resilience, especially in product, is vital. You’ll only progress, learn and ship products that resonate with users by failing and learning many times. Don’t give up!
Jobs shared something very profound in a 1994 taped interview conducted by the Santa Clara Valley Historical Association:
Most people never pick up the phone. Most people never call and ask. And that’s what separates sometimes the people who do things from those who just dream about them. You gotta act. You gotta be willing to fail. You gotta be willing to crash and burn. With people on the phone or starting a company, if you’re afraid you’ll fail, you won’t get very far.
Remember, it’s not about eliminating self-doubt entirely but creating a culture where individuals feel empowered to face and overcome it together.