By Maggie Taylor and Hannah Bloking
I’d like to kick this off by asking you some questions.
- When you receive a compliment, do you often attribute it to factors other than your own strengths, such as luck or increased effort by other people (e.g. “…it was a team effort!”)?
- Do you feel like you should be able to do everything yourself, no questions asked?
- Do you qualify statements you make with ‘This might not be right, but…” or “This might be a dumb suggestion, but…”?
- Do you avoid letting on that you don’t know something?
- Do you agonize over the smallest flaw in your work because you worry you will be “found out”?
If you saw yourself in one or more of the above, keep reading.
Let me follow that up with a short story. Hannah and I met in late summer of 2020 – a post-COVID world filled with Zoom calls, virtual happy hours, and exactly as much nervousness as you might have meeting someone new in person. Even though we live less than 20 miles apart in the urban sprawl of Seattle, we couldn’t meet in person when our mutual connection suggested we work together to create a session covering Imposter Syndrome.
There was a precedent set for this, which is important to mention. Hannah and I work for two of the best technology companies on the planet and both have successful careers - and we both feel like imposters. Fortunately, we realized we aren’t alone…and neither are you. This revelation was driven by both of us speaking openly about our personal experiences with Imposter Syndrome to different groups in our respective companies and researching this topic that many had never heard of. After several Zoom calls where we compared notes, stories, and lots of planning (!), we co-presented an Imposter Syndrome webinar to 60 DocuSign WISE members and allies. After we received positive feedback on our session, I decided that it would be beneficial to widen the audience and I asked Hannah to help me reframe our topic for all of you at PreSales Collective.
So, what is Imposter Syndrome?
It can affect anyone, regardless of professional expertise, social status, background, or skill level. In fact, 70% of professionals experience Imposter Syndrome at some point in their careers. The term was first used by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. Their study was initially limited to women in academia, but the field quickly realized these feelings can manifest anywhere, for anyone. This is why Hannah and I thought it was such an important topic to cover for our colleagues and create an inclusive workshop experience that included all gender identities – not just women. Our experiences taught us that these feelings can be dispelled (especially at work) through storytelling, education, and transparency.
Although many people report these feelings at some point in their careers, people who are underrepresented in the workplace or identify with marginalized groups can be hit harder. These feelings tell someone that they might have ‘lucked’ out by getting their job, rather than working hard and earning it.
Imposter Syndrome for Tech Professionals
Did you know that everyone you admire professionally has likely experienced this and just never spoken about it? Imposter syndrome can affect everyone – from individual contributors right up to the C-suite.
The anonymous workplace social network Blind conducted a survey to determine how many of the site’s users grapple with intense feelings of insecurity in tech fields. Blind’s user base includes 44,000 Microsoft employees, 29,000 from Amazon, 11,000 from Google, 8,000 from Uber, 7,000 from Facebook, and 6,000 from Apple – and this is just to name a few. From Aug. 27, 2018 through Sept. 5, 2018, Blind asked its users one question in a survey - "Do you suffer from Impostor Syndrome?" Of the respondents, Blind found that 57.55% (5,986) of 10,402 surveyed users have experienced Impostor Syndrome (CNET.com, 2018).
In April 2021, we polled the PreSales Collective (PSC), a diverse community of over 11,000 tech professionals, the same question as Blind – “In the last twelve months, have you experienced Imposter Syndrome?” Our week-long survey, hosted by James Kaikis, Co-Founder of the PSC, resulted in 1,063 votes. Eighty-two percent (82%) of respondents stated that ‘yes’ they’d experienced imposter syndrome.
Okay, why does it matter?
There may be nothing we can do to cure ourselves of imposter syndrome, but that isn’t actually as bad as it sounds. By acknowledging that this feeling exists and creating a corporate culture of awareness by opening lines of conversation on the topic, your organization can foster a culture of honesty and trust between leadership and employees.
Imposter Syndrome holds employees back from pursuing opportunities. In Sheryl Sandburg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead she cites “An internal report at Hewlett-Packard revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60 percent of the requirements. This difference has a huge ripple effect.” Combatting imposter syndrome means that your employees (and you!) can feel confident when sharing ideas and rise to the occasion to grow professionally instead of scaring themselves out of it.
Actionable Steps – because who doesn’t appreciate direct results?
Hannah and I want to leave you with some tips that we’ve used and learned along the way. We hope that these concrete actions help you identify and combat imposter syndrome in your own life, both professionally and personally.
False mantras like this can be dangerous. We see this affirmation everywhere – throw pillows, social media, a magnet on your best friend’s fridge. This aspect of ‘hustle’ culture implies that you should be accomplishing ‘more’ with your day because Beyoncé can, so why can’t you?
Name Those Feelings - The most important part of this process is to give these feelings a name. This might seem a bit simplistic, but it works. I like the word 'imposterism,' but you can give it any name you want – imposter syndrome, or even a name like Susan or Todd can do two things. 1) It separates the feelings from how you really feel about yourself as a person and 2) It allows you to take a step in the right direction towards learning what causes these feelings for you and how to work through them.
Get Comfortable with Transparency and Talk About It – ‘Oh, you just want me to talk about it?’ The short answer is yes, but the way you go about it is important. Using formal review periods is to your advantage in this situation. During these conversations, you have the opportunity to ensure your manager takes note of what you’re saying and refers you back to previous positive feedback, creates a pattern of examining where you might be struggling, and shows you that they too experience feelings like this at times.
Compliments Aren’t Bragging – In a study by Clance and Imes, participants were required to complete various homework assignments. In one assignment, individuals wrote down the positive feedback they had received. Later, they would have to recall why they received this feedback and what about it made them perceive it in a negative light. Keeping a record of positive feedback and shoutouts from colleagues (mine is a folder in my email!) is a wonderful method for giving yourself a place to go when you’re feeling low. If you’re having a bad day, and you click into your email and find a bunch of “Thank you so much for your hard work,” and “You’re a rockstar!” topped off by a positive review from your boss’ boss that you got six months ago and forgot about – how amazing does that make you feel? No matter how simple, keep those notes of encouragement!
Stop qualifying your language. In a study in 2013, researcher Queena Hoang proposed that intrinsic motivation can decrease the feelings of being a fraud that are common in impostor phenomenon. This includes a series of re-framing current ideas. In other words, by ‘softening the blow’ – you reduce your own authority and do yourself a disservice. Being straightforward does not mean you’re being rude! I don’t know if I was supposed to do this, but I follow this chart to the letter. These phrases have helped me be more professionally confident, set expectations, and saved me time I spent worrying over my language.
Diversify your Network – In their 1978 paper, Clance and Imes proposed a therapeutic approach they used for their participants or clients with impostor phenomenon. This technique includes a group setting where various individuals meet others who are also living with this experience. The researchers explained that group meetings made a significant impact on their participants. They proposed that it was the realization that they were not the only ones who experienced these feelings. The more people you know, the more ideas you’re exposed to, and the further your reach. By having a network of folks who you rely on, but who also rely on you, your brain more quickly realizes you know what you’re doing, and if you don’t – that’s okay – someone you know can help!
Don’t know where to start? The PreSales Collective has several easy ways to help you. Introduce yourself and meet other professionals on our Slack channel. PreSales Collective also regularly hosts webinars with leaders from top tech companies. Join a webinar and participate in live Q&A!
So, it turns out, that Hannah and I had more in common than we initially realized, and even in an era of purely digital collaboration we were able to expand our networks, find some common ground, and hopefully convey the weight of the conversations you need to be having in the workplace. You’re not alone. You and your work matter. You are where you are because you’ve earned it. You can keep going.
Maggie Taylor has worked in SaaS-based technology since 2012, and leapt into the world of Proposal Management six years ago. The best part of Proposals and PreSales is creating relationships with Sales and other subject matter experts to grow the business. Maggie is currently a Proposal Manager at DocuSign and would love to connect on LinkedIn.
Hannah Bloking spent 8 years as a PreSales engineer at several CX companies and is passionate about how much value PreSales brings to organizations. She lives in Seattle, WA with her husband and daughter (with a son on the way). Hannah is currently a Sr. Business Development Management at AWS and would love to connect on LinkedIn.