At Agile Testing Days 2022 in Potsdam, Germany, we facilitated a workshop, “Winning with imposter syndrome: A community effort”. In our introduction, we shared Harvard Business Review’s definition of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome leads high-achieving people, especially women, to suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence, in spite of external proof of their competence. Our goal was to have participants come up with ideas to make a world in which imposter syndrome has no chance.
We were delighted to have a full room with 40 participants, seated in groups of four. As we believe imposter syndrome is not an individual failure, but an industry-wide, cultural problem, it was important to us to involve both people who do, and people who do not suffer from imposter syndrome. We were thrilled to find both were indeed represented in our group!
We structured the workshop by having participants use three different brainstorming techniques to come up with ideas surrounding three different topics – one technique per topic.
In our first exercise, table groups captured how the term “imposter syndrome” feels in their minds. In what ways is it different from normal insecurity about one’s own capabilities? Why do people have imposter syndrome in their professional life, but not in activities outside of work - or vice versa? We used a brainstorming technique called “brainwriting”. Each person wrote their thoughts on a piece of paper for three minutes. Then everyone passed their paper to the next person at their table and added whatever thoughts were triggered by what they read there. This continued for the full round of four people. (There were a few complaints of cramping hands!) Several tables shared the ideas that came up for them as they brainstormed together.
Our second exercise was to discuss what triggers imposter syndrome for each of us. This time we used the “1-2-4-Many” brainstorming technique (or in our case, given we had only four at each table, “1-2-4”). First was a period for each person to reflect on their own. Then they formed pairs and discussed their thoughts with their pair. Finally, all four people took the time to discuss it together. Then, we went around the room to hear various ways imposter syndrome can be triggered.
For our third exercise, our mission shifted to finding ways to defeat imposter syndrome. People at each table wrote ideas on sticky notes and put the stickies on their group wall chart. They grouped similar ideas to form an affinity diagram. So many insightful and creative ideas emerged in such a short time! We asked people to sign their sticky notes if they wanted to be quoted in this post.
Finally, we asked each group to choose their favourite ideas and put the sticky notes for each on a giant wall poster. They were free to think of new ideas during this process. Again, the participants grouped similar ideas into categories. It was amazing how fast the categories emerged! Gwen Diagram was kind enough to lead the whole group in finalizing and naming the categories.
And here are the results! We have done a bit of editing to clarify since you readers don’t have all the context we did by the end of the workshop. Using these techniques can help you if you experience imposter syndrome, but in general, we think they can make the world a better place where imposter syndrome becomes less of a problem for everyone.
Healthy relationships at work
- Make a friend
- Offer free hugs
- Encourage open communication
- Take advantage of this open communication to talk about imposter syndrome!
- Can ask any “stupid” question at any time - really, there are no stupid questions! (especially for us testers - “QA” stands for “question asker”!)
- Know that even if you don’t feel imposter syndrome, people around you do.
- Create proper onboarding processes in the organization so that new people can feel confident as they learn. Don’t let them feel isolated, give them an onboarding buddy, have a plan and set reasonable expectations.
- The team == the team
- No difference in external and internal employees (Sharona originated this)
- Competence is a whole team effort (Micha originated this)
Collaboration over competition
- More collaboration and less competition in our education systems will help people avoid feelings of inadequacy in their careers
- More collaboration and pairing at work means faster learning and sharing of ideas, nobody gets left out.
- Improve feedback techniques, and provide ongoing training in good feedback techniques (There are many resources available for this, one good place to look is Esther Derby’s work.)
- Give/get feedback constantly, even if only positive (Micha originated this)
- Make a “safe to fail” environment
- There is no failure, only learning
- No judgment - this starts with ourselves, so don’t judge others and assume they are doing their best
- Share struggles, not only successes
- Support trial & error experiments (Nicoletta originated this)
Be kind to yourself
- Be positive (easy to say, harder to do)
- Learn to take a compliment (Mubbashir originated this)
- Celebrate success! Each time!
- Don’t assume you know what others think.
- Never self-judge, and don’t compare yourself to others
- Do not become the football of others’ opinions - don’t try to change who you are because of what others think of you
- Reduce the focus on “performance” for children as they grow up.
- Teach at school how failure and mistakes can be good (lessons) (Naa’ilah originated this).
- Allow people to make mistakes - even yourself.
We hope you find some nuggets in these ideas to help yourself and your teammates to defeat imposter syndrome. Let’s recognize that our achievements matter, and we don’t need to keep proving ourselves by trying to be perfect. The ideas to change our education systems are interesting - what can we do to influence our schools and our sports team systems?
Imposter syndrome is a waste of time - let’s beat it.