Overcoming Impostor Syndrome as a First-Time Manager

4 pieces of conventional wisdom brand-new managers may be better off ignoring

Illustration by Margarida Mouta
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I was working as an account rep at a high-growth tech startup when I was promoted to lead a small team. Overnight I went from individual contributor to coach and mentor, managing people whose job I was just doing the day before.

I was certain that any minute my team would realize that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, or that my boss would realize she’d made a big mistake in making me a team lead. If you’re reading this article, that unsettling feeling that you’ll be “found out” at any moment probably sounds familiar.

Impostor Syndrome was first dubbed “Impostor Phenomenon” in the 1970s by Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD. The two psychologists originally coined the term while studying confidence in professional women. Through their research they discovered that many of these high-achieving women lacked an internal acknowledgment of their success, often sharing a similar self-destructive mental framework. Though Clance and Imes focused their research on women, many counselors and career coaches today agree that the affliction affects men nearly as much as it does women.

“Folks [suffering from Impostor Syndrome] start to construct a series of cognitive distortions in their head,” says Anamaria Nino-Murcia, a Silicon Valley leadership coach. She’s able to recognize patterns simply based on the types of words her clients use.

“They’ll commonly deflect responsibility for their successes with justifications like: ‘I just got lucky,’ or ‘It was a fluke,’ or ‘That wasn’t really because of me.’”

Today, Impostor Syndrome describes the mental self-torment of someone who struggles to internalize their own accomplishments, leading to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, or fraud. While not technically recognized as a “syndrome” by medical standards, it’s all too real for professionals across fields, from CEOs to recent college grads.

In her research, Dr. Imes notes that this phenomenon appears more frequently among people who are beginning a new endeavor. So, it’s not surprising that many first-time managers fall prey to this mental self-warfare, doubting their own leadership capabilities and manager-worthy skill set.

To make matters worse, some of the most common pieces of management advice out there — seek out constructive criticism, reject credit-seeking, embrace vulnerability — seem intentionally designed to undermine your fledgling confidence.

Here are four pieces of conventional management wisdom you may be better off ignoring as a first-time manager…

Sometimes vulnerability isn’t the best policy

As a new manager, I read obsessively about management strategy, organizational behavior, and effective leadership tactics. Gone are the days of the strong leader who never shows weakness — being a good manager is now more often understood as showing vulnerability and bringing your “whole self” to work. With those guiding principles, I developed a strategy to create an open, connected, productive team.

But in my well-meaning quest to create strong relationships with my reports by being candid and relatable (read: vulnerable and transparent), I overshared. I told my team about my challenges, my pestering inner critic, and my struggle with Impostor Syndrome. I expected that this level of authenticity would build trust with my team and that they’d consequently feel they could be more honest with me. Rookie mistake.

“As a general rule, showing vulnerability and humanness is powerful in that it builds connection,” says Nino-Murcia. “There’s one important caveat, though. If you’re showcasing vulnerability in the exact core competency that people expect of you, it actually tends to be more unsettling for those around you.”

Turns out, the benefits of vulnerability get sidelined when your team hears you doubt your own management skills. Most of the time, your team needs someone who can inspire confidence, display composure and consistency, and lead by example. While there’s still ample room for showing empathy, owning your mistakes, and developing an approachable, open management style, expressing doubt in your abilities as a manager is not an effective strategy.

Instead, muster confidence where you can for your team and find external support to fight those feelings of fraud. Build a network of people to listen to your challenges and encourage you in this new phase of your career. Wendy Saccuzzo, a Bay Area career coach and counselor who specializes in helping people through career transitions, stresses the importance of “finding your group.”

“A big part of making any career transition successfully is having a strong support system,” says Saccuzzo, “whether that’s an actual career coach, a mentor, or a support group.”

Your mentor should be someone who you trust, and who can provide both positive and constructive feedback. In addition to working with a mentor, Saccuzzo suggests tapping into a peer group to help you stay positive. Whether it’s a group of colleagues within your own company, a networking group of like-minded professionals, a local alumni branch, or a tight bunch of close friends, find your people.

Just make sure that when you get together, you avoid self-deprecation and gripe-festing. Use this space to encourage each other to talk about what’s going well and recent successes, in addition to seeking advice on your challenges.

Recognize the “I” in team

“There’s no ‘I’ in team.” It’s a catchy motto that’s ingrained in us from a young age and persists through adulthood. In workplace culture today, employees are conditioned to avoid the personal pronoun “I” when celebrating successes.

It was a real team effort. We collaborated to make it happen. We did it together.

The culture of shared success has become so ubiquitous that many of us feel uncomfortable taking credit for our own accomplishments out of fear that we’ll appear boastful, ungracious, or out of touch. To make matters worse, this feeling can fester and intensify as new managers fear taking credit for their reports’ successes.

The problem with this cycle, notes Nino-Murcia, is that when you don’t have a concrete sense of how your individual behaviors generate certain outcomes, you can’t learn from either your failures or your successes — and, for the record, the latter is just as important as the former. New managers experiencing Impostor Syndrome, for example, may have a hard time articulating why they were promoted. And if you’re not in touch with what you’re doing well and the impact of your actions, how can you continue to grow and develop in the right direction?

Nino-Murcia recommends that first-time managers suffering from Impostor Syndrome take time to contemplate what’s been accomplished and the role they played.

“Reflect on what’s going well. Make a list using the pronoun ‘I.’ What did you do to enable this to happen? How did you contribute to that success?”

This exercise is important in helping first-time managers claim ownership of what they’ve achieved. As a brand new manager, that might mean recognizing the leadership skills you displayed to help get you promoted. Or noting a time when you coached a peer to learn a new skill.

As you develop into your manager role, this practice will evolve, but the premise remains: take notice of your own contributions to the team’s success. It’s important to make the distinction that you’re not taking credit for your reports’ accomplishments, but rather acknowledging how you as their manager helped facilitate, guide, or encourage that success.

Like any new habit, the more you practice claiming your success, the easier it will become.

It’s ok to ask people to tell you how great you are

When we learn to give and receive feedback early in our career, our focus is often on constructive criticism — how we can improve, where we have room for growth and the best ways to learn from failure. Focusing on constant improvement is likely what got you your promotion in the first place.

While giving and receiving constructive feedback is essential to personal and professional growth, those struggling with Impostor Syndrome, particularly new managers, have a distinct need for positive, specific feedback. But if you’re not asking the right questions, your insecurities may creep back in, eschewing generic compliments as pleasantries.

“Drill into how you elicit feedback,” advises Nino-Murcia. “It’s a lot harder to discount specific behavioral feedback versus vague praise.”

Simply asking for positive feedback can feel vulnerable for many people and often doesn’t prompt meaningful, actionable responses. To get more detailed feedback, she suggests, ask your manager questions like: “What’s something I bring to the team that you wish others did, too?” or “It’s important to me that I learn from my successes as well as my failures. Let’s debrief some of the things that went really well this past quarter.”

Likewise, be clear when asking your own reports for positive feedback. Rather than settling for general characterizations like, “You’ve been a great manager,” ask for two to three specific things you’ve done that have been helpful or had a positive impact.

In the end, it’s not all in your head

The truth is that sometimes the voice saying you don’t know what you’re doing has a point. You’re new to the job, after all. There will be a learning curve and skills you need to develop over time. It’s only natural you’ll second-guess yourself along the way.

Confidence is like respect; you have to earn it.

Confidence in your skills isn’t an innate, static thing you either have or you don’t — it’s something you build through hard work. Becoming a great manager is no different. In an excerpt from her book Why Not Me?, actress and comedian Mindy Kaling puts it this way:

People talk about confidence without ever bringing up hard work. That’s a mistake. … I work a lot. Like, a lot a lot. … The result of which is that I’m usually hyper-prepared for whatever I set my mind to do, which makes me feel deserving of attention and professional success, when that’s what I’m seeking. … Confidence is like respect; you have to earn it.

Instead of trying to conjure up confidence in your managerial skills through sheer force of will, it can be freeing to accept that you don’t have to have all the answers right away. Recognizing your imperfections while putting in the work to improve isn’t the same as the paralyzing downward spiral of self-doubt triggered by Impostor Syndrome. If you don’t feel confident in your abilities right now, be confident in your ability to learn and grow and just plain work hard instead. Confidence as a manager and leader will come.

In their original 1978 report on imposter syndrome, Clance and Imes wrap up their findings with a bit of hope that — through self-awareness and practice — people can change their mindset:

…she begins to allow herself to state and feel, “I am intelligent. I have learned and achieved a tremendous amount. It is all right for me to believe in my own intellectual abilities and strengths.” She begins to be free of the burden of believing she is a phony and can more fully participate in the joys, zest, and power of her accomplishments.

You can be proud of your team’s accomplishments and your own. And if you can conquer this hurdle as an emerging leader, you’ll find that celebrating your own success is not only personally motivating rewarding, but a crucial part of your professional growth.

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