One of the aspects of Product Management that can be really hard for people to internalize and adjust to is just how thankless the job can be at times. When things are going badly, the Product Manager is almost always the first person to shoulder the blame — your requirements weren’t clear, the strategy wasn’t well-articulated, the documentation wasn’t sufficient, you didn’t provide marketing or sales with the proper positioning…stop me if you’ve heard these before. And, when things are going really well, your role winds up falling into the background — nobody notices the facilitating and maneuvering, planning and plotting that backlog, nailing the estimates and schedule.
But it’s not just the fact that there’s no party thrown in your honor, nor that you’re the first one pilloried during the management meeting following a failed release. It’s the fact that all of this negative attention can seep into into our own self-image, and can turn slowly and insidiously into something known as “imposter syndrome”.
What is “Imposter Syndrome”
Imposter syndrome rears its ugly head when we externalize our successes, rather than internalizing them — when we start to feel that the reason we succeed when we do is luck, the effort of others, good timing, or other factors over which we have no direct control. People with imposter syndrome also tend to internalize their failures — taking all of that negative feedback and attributing it to something about them that’s not right, that they’re just not good enough to do their job. It’s that feeling you have when you’re in a meeting and things seem to be going right, but you feel as though others are looking at you and wondering exactly why you’re there.
Another aspect of “imposter syndrome” comes when people begin to think that they are just “faking it until they make it,” even though they’re highly qualified to do their jobs, and highly effective at it. The insidious nature of these beliefs shows up most acutely when someone gives you credit or a compliment for a job well done, and you start to actually think that you’ve “fooled them” into thinking you’re responsible — when you probably are.
Recognizing the Warning Signs
As with any kind of self-reinforcing bias, the best way to ensure that you don’t fall victim to imposter syndrome is by understanding how it presents itself in the Product Management context:
- When someone gives you a compliment, you deflect it rather than just saying, “Thank you.”
- When you succeed in delivering something, you attribute that success less to your own ability and more to timing, luck, or others involved.
- You have a nagging feeling that others will “discover” that you really aren’t qualified to do the job you’ve been hired to do.
- You avoid opportunities to demonstrate your actual competencies and skills, for fear that someone who sees these demonstrations will “call you out” for your perceived deceptions.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of looking critically at how you respond to the daily successes and failures that you will encounter in your role as a Product Manager. Do you internalize the failures and externalize the successes? Then, you might be suffering from some amount of imposter syndrome.
Pulling Yourself Out of the Dive
If you’ve identified the traits or behaviors that may indicate that you’re dealing with some amount of imposter syndrome, it requires a lot of self-discipline and a decent amount of self-examination to pull yourself out of the spiral. This is because, the more you externalize your successes, the more you minimize your own skills and talents; this minimization leads to misses and mistakes, which feeds the internalization of the negative outcomes.
First, know that you’re qualified for the job you’re doing. Seriously. You wouldn’t have the job that you do in this market if you weren’t qualified or capable of doing it. Assuming that you’re not on a performance plan, and you’re achieving at least moderate success in your role, then you’re not an imposter.
Second, be mindful of how you’re responding to both successes and failures, and whenever you find yourself externalizing successes and/or internalizing failures, stop and think about why you’re doing so. Force yourself to do a quick mental retrospective on what led to the success, how involved you were, and what you contributed to the outcome. Stopping to think about where you’re at and how you got there is a small and very effective way to check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Lastly, know that you’re not alone. Nearly every person I know of who has taken a position of authority or leadership has, at one point or another, doubted their abilities and felt like an imposter. These situations are where it becomes important and extremely helpful to have an external mentor, to act as your “reality check” when you’re starting to have these kinds of self-doubting thoughts. Having a reliable and reasonable external check on your achievements and talents is perhaps the best way to control for those endemic impostor thoughts.