Do you sometimes avoid accepting authority and making decisions because doing so will expose your inadequacy? If people really knew you, do you think they would see through your charade and recognize that you haven’t earned the authority you have? Yeah, me too. Researchers estimate that 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. I like to appear confident, but deep down, I’m full of doubts.
What can you do about feeling like an imposter and lacking the confidence to accept more authority and make bigger decisions? Consider that, otherwise, you’ll have to defer to folks who do feel entitled to take that authority and make those decisions. Should being cocky and arrogant entitle them to run things? No way! I guess that just leaves you and me to step up and do our best.
While experience will eventually make you capable in your role, no one starts out that way, and “fake it until you make it” is easier to say than do. How can you overcome thoughts of inadequacy and act with integrity and authenticity until you finally know what you’re doing? Read on.
For more on career progression, read Level up.
It’s a tough job
Leading is difficult, whether you’re a team expert, a lead, an architect, a manager, or a director. It’s nice to be a respected decision-maker, but you’re going to make mistakes and disappoint people. Your peers are often happy to have someone else take on the responsibility (and blame). They may be envious and second-guess your choices, but offer them the chance to do better, and they’ll slink away.
Thus, it doesn’t jeopardize your leadership to admit you don’t have all the knowledge and answers. It’s okay to say the situation is new to you. It’s okay to ask for other people’s opinions and recommendations. It’s still okay to do these things after spending years in your role.
Many leaders don’t want to appear weak or uncertain. However, acting with integrity and being authentic shows the opposite. If you don’t know something, say so. If you’re unsure, say so. Confer with others, become better educated, and then make thoughtful decisions. At that point, you will know, you will be as certain as anyone ever is, and you will appear strong for showing you are unafraid of the truth and differing viewpoints. You’ll also set an example for others, encouraging honesty and openness.
Consider how you feel after leaders ask for information and guidance on a decision. Do you lose confidence in them? Do you question their strength or authority? No, of course not. Instead, you gain respect for them, appreciate their vulnerability and willingness to listen, and increase your confidence in their decision-making.
For more on decision-making in the face of ambiguity, read You have to make a decision.
Since it’s okay to admit what you don’t know and ask for the help you need to lead, what’s stopping you from expanding your authority and making broader decisions? Nothing. You only need to give yourself permission to do it. Someone must take charge. Someone must make decisions. Others are slinking away. Step up and lead.
Some decisions are yours to make, like those within your area of ownership. Make them, informing those impacted. Other decisions require review and/or approval from stakeholders. You can and often should make those decisions, too, if they directly impact you and your area. Briefly describe the situation to the stakeholders (in writing or verbally), recommend a course of action, and ask if they have any concerns about moving forward.
You don’t need to wait for others to tell you what to do. If there’s an area that you own or others frequently ask you about, then you can be the authority on that area and make the decisions, conferring with stakeholders as needed. You’re already the expert—become the leader.
Sure, you’ll occasionally be wrong and make mistakes. You’re human. If you respond positively to your mistakes, correct the problems, and learn from the incidents, you will become a better leader and enhance your reputation. Learning is what makes you less of an imposter.
Ask me if I care
Why would others listen to you? Why would they accept your decisions? We’ve already discussed how your peers are delighted for someone else to take on the responsibility (and blame), but that doesn’t mean they’ll have confidence in you. If folks are coming to you with questions about an area, or you’re the acknowledged owner of it, then people will listen to you and accept your decisions about it.
However, what really gives people confidence in your decisions and leadership is if you care. Caring about an area inspires others to follow you, whether the area is people, technology, practices, or lunch options. Folks may not like your lunch choice, but if you care about it, they’ll try it. If you further care about the needs of stakeholders and those impacted by your decisions, they’ll follow you gladly.
It’s easy to confuse passion with caring since they often coincide. However, you can passionately pursue something without caring about the outcome and how it impacts others. For people to have faith in you and follow your lead, you need to care.
Conversely, if you don’t care about an area, you shouldn’t accept authority over it and make decisions about it. If that authority is foisted upon you, delegate it to someone who cares or start caring. Not caring is a recipe for bad decisions and loss of trust in leadership. Imposters pretend to care. If you do care, you’re not an imposter.
You can do it
Feeling like an imposter is common and understandable. Many leaders admit to it publicly, using their vulnerability to encourage others and show their own strength of character. I was a teaching assistant in grad school. The first time I saw the eyes of my students looking up at me expectantly, I nearly panicked. I was only a few years older than them. I didn’t know what I was doing. That same feeling hits me every time I give a presentation or introduce myself in a meeting. Yet, I care about what I do, prepare as best I can, ask for information and suggestions, make informed decisions, confer with stakeholders, and get on with life.
The world isn’t run by magical or abstract means. It’s run by regular flawed people like us. You deserve to lead as much as anyone. If you’re conscientious, you’ll do the right thing. If you care, people will follow. Care enough to act.
Want personalized coaching on this topic or any other challenge? Schedule a free, confidential call. I provide one-on-one career coaching with an emphasis on underrepresented, midcareer software professionals. Find out more at Ally for Onlys in Tech.