SAMANTHA CONNELL, CIH, is the global health programs director at Indorama Ventures PCL.
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Taking on Imposter Syndrome
Have you ever looked at the people surrounding you at work and asked yourself, “What am I doing here?” Have you ever thought, “Who am I to be in this position?”
Behavioral scientists and related experts refer to this feeling as “imposterism,” “imposter phenomenon,” and, most commonly, “imposter syndrome.” Imposter syndrome—described in a BBC article as “the feeling that your work achievements are undeserved and that you are likely to be exposed as a fraud”—is often experienced by underrepresented populations or people experiencing gender or age biases, but it is also frequent in people starting a new role.
I’ve found imposter syndrome to be very present in my life, which feels incredibly strange and vulnerable to admit to my professional colleagues. But research suggests I'm far from alone. For example, the International Journal of Behavioral Science estimates that 70 percent of workers will experience imposter syndrome at some point, so there are likely to be other AIHA members experiencing similar thoughts.
As occupational and environmental health and safety professionals, we have a unique and advantageous opportunity that doesn’t exist in some fields: we can work in a variety of industries at various levels of responsibility and within different spheres of influence. For instance, we could be pulled into business discussions where we are expected to advise on a topic but don’t necessarily have the background. We can also move across subjects in OEHS. For example, you might get moved to a new role in environmental or process safety. Much of the time, opportunities like these come with plenty of chances to feel unsure of ourselves.
Factors that can lead to imposter thoughts include age, past experiences, others’ comments and actions, and personal expectations.
My Experience I recently took on a new role as global industrial hygiene director in a large company—a dream of mine that I didn’t expect to happen for another several years.
This job came with many unknowns for me: new industries with a broad range of businesses under one umbrella, a new sphere of influence, new vocabulary, and new expectations from me and for others. You can bet I was thinking “What have I done?” when I found myself in a meeting with our CEO, accompanied by his closest advisors and my other teammates, during my second week on the job.
But seven months, several small wins, and some good feedback later, I felt okay—until my boss approached me to become the global health programs director and take on overseeing occupational health, health promotion, and employee assistance. Imposter syndrome was back: “Wait, what? I’m not an expert in occupational health. What do I know about health promotion or employee assistance?” My perception of myself and the reality of my qualifications butted heads: I worried that my technical abilities might be insufficient for this new role, even though my career experience proved otherwise.
I was never the best in my class, and in college, I tended to value people and relationships over studying. This "less technical" side of myself—something I used to see as a negative trait of mine—has turned out to be critical in my new role as a subject matter expert in a brand new corporate EHS group that has been tasked with helping to standardize the organization. Change is difficult in any company, and I have the added challenge of being in a position that hadn’t existed previously. I’ve found that while my knowledge in IH and OEHS is critical, other skills like building relationships, gaining people’s trust, and keeping an eye on the “big picture” are equally if not more important in the success of our new team’s initiatives.
How to Combat Imposterism Confronting your feelings can help you understand where they are coming from. Factors that can lead to imposter thoughts include age, past experiences, others’ comments and actions, and personal expectations. For example, if you’re the youngest person on your team, you may feel as if you have insufficient experience to contribute to certain discussions. Similarly, if you’ve had a difficult experience with a manager, this can potentially affect your confidence.
Here are some tips I’ve found to be helpful in such situations.
Tap into your sense of identity and play to your strengths. For a long time, I struggled with feeling like I’m not the most intellectual of IHs—because I thought that’s what you have to be in our field. I’ve come to realize that in certain situations, it was my outgoing personality and sense of humor that helped me to form important relationships and influence situations at work—not the knowledge obtained from my degree or certification.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you’re starting in a role where you already know how to do everything, what is there to learn? In reality, you don’t have to know everything—you just have to be able to recognize that you don’t know something.
And if you’re feeling comfortable all the time, where’s the potential for growth? Where’s the challenge that will lead you to change as an individual and professional? Stepping into a higher-level role or being the new member of a high-functioning team might feel intimidating at first, but it’s better for honing your abilities in the long run.
You may also be pulled into discussions about matters that are typically outside our field. For example, you could be asked to participate in meetings about insurance or human resources issues. While you might feel uncomfortable with topics outside your expertise, you won’t always be expected to actively contribute to these discussions. Take the pressure off yourself and use these instances to gain knowledge about other areas of your company and learn from the people around the table.
Be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself the room to make mistakes and learn from them. People often experience imposter syndrome in the initial days and months at a new job. I personally can attest to this. I have changed roles a fair amount in my career, and I usually feel uneasy in the beginning. As soon as I understand the processes and achieve a few small wins for myself, I start to feel “useful” and competent. It also helps to look back from time to time and see what you’ve accomplished.
Don’t compare yourself to others and their roles. You were hired for who you are, not who you think you need to be. Your colleagues’ experiences may help provide potential career path options for you, but you don’t need to follow the same exact steps.
Get a mentor or “sparring partner.” Help each other recognize accomplishments and sort through everything that’s going on professionally. A coach of mine helped me recognize my leadership potential by showing me the impact I’ve made in volunteer roles, where no one is paid and there’s no direct reporting line. I went from thinking “Who am I to be leading this group?” to “Wow, I really am making a difference!” Tuck these compliments and realizations into your back pocket and pull them out later when you’re feeling a bit down.
Share your feelings with people you trust. Talk about your feelings with colleagues or friends with whom you feel comfortable. Building relationships with my new teammates has been key to helping me cope with my feelings of uncertainty. On a recent work trip, we discussed this article and the topic of imposter syndrome. It turns out that others on the team also feel like they’re on shaky ground as we build something brand new together. It helps to know I’m not alone.
Take advantage of your imposter thoughts. Recent research shows that people experiencing imposter thoughts are actually at an advantage. Questioning your abilities or expertise can motivate you to do better and be prepared for unexpected situations. See the articles in the resources section for additional tips.
How to Help Others Give positive feedback. When someone does a good job or something you find excellent, tell them. Constructive criticism is important, but we often overlook opportunities to let someone know we like what they’re doing or respect their work.
Foster an inclusive culture. According to recent research, the answer to fixing imposter syndrome is to remove bias. People tend to feel like an imposter because the situation indicates it. Make people feel at home by building a diverse team that fosters a variety of leadership styles.
Be understanding when someone is new to a role. Many things might seem straightforward to you if you’ve been at a company for a while. Reach out to new colleagues and share your knowledge and insights to give them a boost as they learn their new role.
BBC Worklife: “The Hidden Upside of Imposter Syndrome” (March 2021).
Harvard Business Review: “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” (February 2021).
International Journal of Behavioral Science: “The Impostor Phenomenon” (PDF, 2011).