Impostor syndrome is hard. It takes its toll on mental health, steals sound sleep, and is often a fast track to early burnout.
Given how common impostor syndrome is in the world of product management, it deserves special attention.
As someone who deals with impostor syndrome regularly, I have learned much about it. In this article, I’ll share my view on how to deal with impostor syndrome, specifically for product managers. You won’t hear overly general tips like “keep a list of successes” here.
Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern in which individuals doubt their skills, talents, or accomplishments and have a persistent, internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.
For product managers, impostor syndrome can stem from the breadth of the role, high expectations of top leadership (especially in product-led organizations), and the ambitious quality that product managers themselves tend to have.
Before figuring out how to eliminate impostor syndrome, we must first unpack its origin. After all, different people suffer from impostor syndrome for different reasons and thus might need to take different actions to alleviate it.
For product managers, I’d identify three primary sources of impostor syndrome:
Product management is such a wide discipline that there’s always something new to learn. You can spend 10 years in the profession just to realize that you don’t even know the basics of building relationships with your sales team.
There are always gaps in our knowledge and areas where we are complete newbies. This scenario doesn’t promote confidence.
Given how high-pressure and high-prestige the product management discipline can be, it tends to attract overly ambitious go-getters.
The problem with ambition is that we tend to set the bar too high — and we are often impatient to jump over that bar. That leaves us with a sense of lacking fulfillment. There is always a carrot dangling from the end of the stick, and we want to catch it now.
If we aren’t able to grab that carrot quickly, it makes us doubt ourselves.
PMs are expected to juggle strategy, discovery, and execution at the same time while keeping stakeholders and teams happy and everyone aligned with the product vision.
Given role expectations, teams and stakeholders often see PMs as jacks of all trades and leaders who can guide the product through any storm. PMs also are in the spotlight, whether they like it or not — even more so when things go south.
That pressure can make even the greatest PMs doubt themselves at times.
The breadth of the role is one of the most common reasons PMs develop impostor syndrome. There are two main tactics I have to deal with this particular challenge:
The product manager is a generalist who learns on the go depending on the current needs of the product. This is clear in most product manager job descriptions, yet too often we try to master every minuscule detail of the product development process.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remind yourself, it’s not the role of a product manager to know it all.
If your CEO wanted you to be a subject matter expert in everything, they would have hired a dedicated expert for each aspect of product management. But they didn’t; they hired you, a generalist. Someone who knows how to learn on the go and get things done.
Embrace this freedom. Don’t try to be an expert in everything; focus on being good at learning and adapting.
While it’s true that you don’t need to be an expert in everything, having a few specializations can help you gain confidence and alleviate impostor syndrome.
Choose a few areas where you want to go deep and invest time in mastering them. This will not only make you more valuable as a product manager, but also help you feel more secure in your role.
Start by identifying your interests and strengths and see if you can align them with your organization’s needs. Set realistic goals and break them down into smaller milestones to make the process more manageable and sustainable.
Remember, building a specialization involves not only acquiring knowledge but also applying it. Look for opportunities to practice and implement your new skills in your daily work as a product manager, solidifying your expertise and enhancing your value to your organization.
Ambition can be a double-edged sword, and it can lead to impostor syndrome.
On one hand, ambition fuels your drive to achieve goals, grow professionally, tackle challenging projects, and improve and excel in your role. On the other hand, unchecked ambition can create unrealistic expectations, making you feel like you’re constantly falling short.
To keep your tendency toward overambition in check, set attainable goals and celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small. Reflect on your achievements and recognize the progress you’ve made in your career.
Practicing gratitude and self-compassion can help mitigate the negative effects of ambition, allowing you to maintain a healthy balance between striving for success and acknowledging your current capabilities and accomplishments.
Let’s take a closer look at some coping mechanisms for those of us who struggle with a hyperambitious drive to succeed:
One of the key reasons for impostor syndrome in ambitious product managers is setting unattainable goals. To mitigate this issue, set goals that are challenging but achievable. Break them down into smaller milestones and focus on accomplishing them one at a time.
This incremental approach not only helps you avoid overwhelming yourself and feeling like an impostor, but it also allows you to track your progress more effectively and adapt your plans as needed.
When setting realistic goals, consider your available resources, such as time, budget, and team capacity, as well as any potential constraints or obstacles, and be prepared to adjust your goals accordingly.
By setting attainable targets and acknowledging the factors that can influence your success, you can create a more sustainable and balanced approach to your work and avoid the sisyphean anxiety that comes with impostor syndrome.
When you’re ambitious, it’s easy to overlook the small wins in pursuit of the big, overarching goal. However, celebrating these small wins can boost your confidence and help you overcome impostor syndrome.
Make a conscious effort to acknowledge your achievements and recognize the progress you’re making.
Sharing your successes with your team, manager, or even just writing them down for yourself can provide a valuable sense of accomplishment. This practice also serves as a reminder that you are capable and competent in your role, even if you haven’t yet achieved your ultimate goal.
By taking the time to appreciate the smaller milestones along the way, you can maintain a more positive mindset, reinforce your self-belief, and effectively combat the feelings of impostor syndrome that may arise.
Being ambitious often comes with a sense of urgency. Learning to be patient with yourself and the process is essential in dealing with impostor syndrome. Understand that success takes time and that it’s OK to not achieve everything on your to-do list in one day. Cultivating patience will help you develop resilience and a healthier mindset.
Try to view your journey as a marathon, not a sprint, and give yourself the space to learn and grow at a sustainable pace. Setbacks and obstacles are a natural part of the process and represent opportunities to refine your approach.
By focusing on long-term growth and development rather than fixating on short-term results, you can build a solid foundation of self-assurance and resilience that will help you overcome impostor syndrome.
High expectations can contribute to impostor syndrome. With the pressure to juggle numerous responsibilities and the need to be seen as a leader, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and doubt yourself.
Here are some ways to manage and adapt to those expectations:
Be transparent with your stakeholders about what you can and cannot achieve within the given timeframe and resources. By setting realistic expectations, you can prevent disappointment and reduce the pressure that can lead to impostor syndrome.
Regularly communicate with your stakeholders to provide updates on progress and address any potential roadblocks or concerns. This open dialogue helps build trust and credibility while ensuring that everyone is on the same page about the project’s status and anticipated outcomes.
When stakeholders have a clear understanding of the situation, you’ll find it easier to navigate the inevitable challenges that arise and maintain your confidence as a product manager.
As a product manager, it’s important to set boundaries to protect your time and energy. Learn to say “no” when necessary and prioritize tasks that align with your goals. Establishing boundaries will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed and maintain a sense of control over your work.
Be proactive in managing your workload and allocating time for critical tasks, as well as self-care and personal development. A healthy work-life balance is essential for maintaining your mental and emotional well-being, which directly impacts your ability to perform effectively in your role and combat impostor syndrome.
One of the biggest mistakes product managers make is trying to do everything themselves. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or delegate tasks when needed. Recognizing your limitations and seeking support will not only help you manage expectations, but also prevent impostor syndrome from taking hold.
Build strong relationships with your team members and leverage their expertise to complement your own. Collaborate and engage in open discussions to find solutions to challenges and foster a sense of teamwork.
By tapping into the collective knowledge and skills of your team, you’ll not only achieve better results, but also create an environment where everyone can grow, learn, and feel more confident in their abilities.
Impostor syndrome can hinder your career growth, impact your mental health, and prevent you from reaching your full potential as a product manager. By identifying its sources and implementing strategies to deal with it, you can build confidence, improve your performance, and become a more effective leader.
Addressing and overcoming impostor syndrome should be a crucial career goal for any product manager. The negative impacts of impostor syndrome on your work performance and overall well-being can include:
To overcome impostor syndrome over the long haul of your product management career, consider the following steps:
By actively working to manage and mitigate impostor syndrome, you can unlock your true potential and become a more effective product manager.
Impostor syndrome is a common issue that affects product managers and can have a negative impact on both their professional and personal lives. By understanding the root causes of impostor syndrome and taking proactive steps to address them, you can build a strong foundation for overcoming it and unlocking your full potential as a product manager.
Remember, no one is perfect, and everyone has something to learn. Embrace the journey, be patient with yourself, and focus on growth and development. As you continue to overcome impostor syndrome, you’ll not only become a more confident and effective product manager, but you’ll also set yourself up for a more fulfilling and successful career.
Featured image source: IconScout
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