Imposter Syndrome Returns: Grads in the Workplace

Let’s face it – as graduates in 2020, we are lucky to get any kind of work during such an unpredictable and turbulent economic time. The job-hunting process is cut-throat enough as it is without the added pressure of a pandemic, followed by a recession. According to Resolution Foundation, graduates of the past year suffer a 13 per cent lower likelihood being employed within three years of finishing their degree. Once we do land that job (whether or not it is what we expected to be doing at the beginning of this year), after a period of relief and celebration, we’re suddenly hit with panic and nerves at that fact that we actually need to start this job. Suddenly, the ‘imposter syndrome’ creeps in.

Diagnosing Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a phrase that is not unfamiliar to most millennials. At one time or another many of us as undergraduates have felt that we are undeserving of our place, surrounded by hundreds of other talented and successful professionals-to-be. According to Social Psychology and Personality Science research, first generation university students are even more likely to be affected by imposter syndrome

Despite this, you would expect that after three to four years of studying – and graduating – that this psychological self-doubt would diminish. Unfortunately, imposter syndrome finds a way to weave back into our minds once we get into the workplace. The phenomenon can manifest in several ways when it comes to careers: avoiding new challenges, undermining achievements and even questioning if you’re the right person for the job

For a moment, you thought those new-school-year nerves were over now but the thought of all eyes on you as you walk into the office (or log onto the Zoom meeting) can still feel just as intimidating, especially among older co-workers who are more experienced and senior to you. You can’t help but feel like an imposter in a new environment where everyone knows what they’re doing, as you wonder how you got here and how long it’s going to take for you to mess it all up.

If you relate to any of the above, you’re clearly suffering from a case of the dreaded Imposter Syndrome. But rest assured, everyone – no matter how old or experienced you are – needs to be shown the ropes on the job. Making mistakes in a new workplace, especially if it’s your first time, is normal and to be expected. Otherwise, they’d just hire robots, right? 

Being new doesn’t equate to being unqualified 

My post-graduation plans went down the drain once the country went on lockdown. Finding a job to get some kind of income became the priority once I finished exams, but even if it wasn’t the one I’d planned to do, the new-job-nerves were still thriving as much as ever. Over the past few months, I’ve managed to get some roles as a languages graduate, using French and Spanish. Learning the ways of the job is one thing but when it isn’t your first language, and you’re surrounded by other natives, you can begin to question: “how did I get here?”. According to a 2017 study, 12 million millennials suffered from a lack of confidence and self-belief in the workplace. Worse yet, 40 percent of young female professionals admitted to feeling intimidated by senior colleagues, compared to half the number of males who felt the same. 

No matter what kind of workplace you’re in, for some reason or another you can begin to doubt your own skills. I felt myself inclined to let someone else answer the questions, to trust others to do a task better than I could, to always convince myself that the customer on the other end of the phone would rather be talking to someone else other than me. It is so easy to undermine what you are achieving and instead focus on all the mistakes you’ve made or what others have over you. In actuality, others who you might think have it all together are probably doubting themselves too.  

Comparison kills progression

The problem with imposter syndrome in the workplace is we can stop ourselves from reaching our full potential and getting as much out of a role as possible. The intimidation you can feel from speaking up in a meeting, asking a question, or contributing to the Teams chat (now that we work more remotely) soon vanishes once you’ve built up the courage to say it. This isn’t always easy, for some more than others, so it can take a while to get there. Once you do, you won’t regret asking that question as much as you’d regret never speaking up and making yourself known. 

Be confident in your abilities and remember that we all have to start somewhere. Your peer’s fancy job title on LinkedIn doesn’t necessarily equate to confidence and does not mean that they’re not also suffering from imposter syndrome. We masquerade as these all-knowing, all-achieving graduates and celebrate our successes, but we never admit our failures as openly. We have all gone through the same initial process of adapting and learning, and more experience will make that easier every time.

Ultimately, you’re never the only one who has felt lost or overwhelmed at some point or another. First jobs, new jobs and all the training that goes with them are designed to take your potential and shape it into practical experience and skills that you can transfer throughout your career. Do not be afraid to make mistakes – any good company will allow you room for that. 

Embrace your humanness, don’t fight it

My limited experience in professional work up until now has taught me that feeling uncertain and dubious shouldn’t mean you’re undeserving of a job or an imposter in the workplace. Focus your doubts into learning and improving and do not compare yourself to others’ outward appearance. 

In the workplace many of us wear masks and it is often a tough environment to seek reassurance and express doubt as our judgement is constantly clouded with the need to be ‘professional’ – anything else seems to get mistaken as weakness. Beneath these masks, however, you would be surprised how many people have secretly felt insecure and unsure of their decisions, their authority and their right to be there. 

As much importance as it holds, work is only one part of our lives. We are multi-faceted human beings and as such, we are not all made the same. As much as you can sometimes feel like the odd-one-out, workplaces are made up of a diverse mix of people, and it is almost impossible to be an imposter where no one person is exactly the same as the next (even if we might try to mimic the ‘right’ behaviour). 

We are hired for what we can bring to the table, so rather than concerning yourself over being the ‘imposter’, embrace your unique differences and instead see yourself as the new-found asset to the team that you are.

Words by Georgina Crothers

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