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Understanding and overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Understanding and overcoming Impostor Syndrome

There is a huge irony in the writing of this post – I procrastinated over it for weeks, anxious that I didn’t possess enough knowledge or credibility to write about such a big topic. Then I came to the realisation: this was all the more reason for me to push past my reservations and write it.

First of all, what is Impostor Syndrome? It’s certainly a phrase that’s bandied around a lot in the technical community right now. Everybody seems to be talking about this recent hot topic, but what does it really mean?


What is Impostor Syndrome?

The simplest definition of Impostor Syndrome I have found is in Oliver Burkeman’s 2013 article on the topic. He describes it as ‘the feeling that you’re a fraud, and any day now you’ll be exposed’. In 1978, a study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes defined the patterns of those suffering from impostor syndrome as maintaining ‘a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact, they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise’. The symptoms include ‘a need to constantly check and re-check work’ and ‘overcompensation like staying late at work’. Early studies suggested it might be much more common among successful women, but more recent research has found that it affects both genders pretty equally.

Imposter Syndrome image from Errant Science

Whichever definition you choose to follow, the vast majority of people in the workplace (especially in technology) have probably felt like an Impostor at one time or another. Ever been in a room, looked around and thought, “they must all know so much more than me, why do I even have a seat at this table?”. Or maybe you’ve stopped yourself from putting forward a suggestion or idea because you think somebody else must have already considered it and turned it down – surely you’re not going to be the one that has come up with a solution that everybody could agree on?

This can have a hugely negative impact on our performance as individuals, within a team and, on a larger scale, organisations as a whole. Those suffering from Impostor Syndrome are more likely to avoid extra responsibility, becoming trapped in an Impostor Cycle. This can lead to lower performance, and also fewer ideas put forward in team discussions. Impostor syndrome can leave you feeling like you are surrounded by enemies, which is an uncomfortable and unproductive environment to be in  (for further reading on this topic see Your Brain at Work by David Rock). All of these factors will lead to lower levels of collaboration, creativity and innovation – a few of the core values we strive for here at Ocado Technology.

How to combat Impostor Syndrome

So, what can be done to combat Impostor Syndrome? We could start by seeking out a trusted friend or mentor at work. Clance and Imes’s results indicated that Impostor Syndrome thrives on isolation, so it is best to talk through your troubles and how to deal with the everyday issues.

One of the best tips I have heard (but also the hardest to achieve!) is to ‘accept that you have had some role in your successes’ from Kyle Eschenroeder’s article – How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome. Those suffering from Impostor Syndrome often attribute their recent success to luck or chance, but there is often a huge amount of hard work, determination and intelligence behind successes and it’s worth reminding yourself of that.

Another of Kyle’s brilliant tips is to ‘stop comparing yourself to that person’. Again, another tendency of Impostor Syndrome sufferers is to say they know less or can do less than others, always comparing their abilities to the people around them. Instead, you should compare yourself to ‘past you’  from 3, 6 or 12 months ago – you’ve learnt more since then, and you’re doing a better job today than ‘past you’ would have done.

Helping others with Impostor Syndrome

I personally think the best way to help each other combat these overwhelming feelings is to give positive feedback to our teammates. We will often point out errors in code reviews, or debate points in meetings, but it’s rare to tell someone directly that they did something well, especially if you are not more senior than your teammates.

Many companies provide a feedback service where you can comment on your peers strengths as well as their weaknesses, so this can be a great place to start. Or if that sounds too scary, you could try leaving a positive comment in a code review or document feedback from time to time. Recognising achievements alongside pointing out weaknesses can make all the difference to someone suffering from impostor syndrome. These little boosts can help individuals  realise their own strengths, and be more likely to share their ideas in future!

Louise Formby, Software Engineer


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