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“I know I’m good at my job, so why do I have zero confidence at work?”

Each week, The Honest Boss answers your career and work related dilemmas. This week, how to deal with a crisis of confidence. 

“I constantly feel like I’m ‘faking it’ at work. I know I’m good at my job, but sometimes it seems like everyone else is full of confidence and I’m much less sure of myself and my direction. We hear about ‘faking it until you make it’ all the time, is this normal?”

Joy*, 28

The way you feel is not at all unusual and is actually something that 70% of the population have experienced at some point time. There is even a psychological term for your self-doubt: imposter syndrome. 

You have admitted that you know you’re good at your job but now and then a nagging voice erupts in your head, shouting something like, “OK, I’ve got away with this up to now but I’ve been lucky.” This is your imposter voice talking; the ghostly nag who will sit on your shoulder every time you’re having a low moment or struggling with a task. The imposter is caused by the normal anxiety that most of us have about our performance at work. Strangely enough, I sometimes think that the more you enjoy your job, and the better you are at it, the louder the imposter’s voice becomes. It’s almost as if you can’t quite believe that you’re getting paid to have this much satisfaction.  

The good news is that current workplace expertise suggests that your kind of anxiety – as well as its first cousin, humility – are part and parcel of what makes for a great leader. If you think about it, any boss without a smidgen of self-doubt would very likely be an arrogant, unlikable person who lacked empathy, and someone who would never admit to any wrongdoing. We know this can’t be right as no one is perfect all of the time, plus we actually learn and get better at what we do through making mistakes. 

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I remember seeing Anna Wintour speak at an international conference. Yes, she of the immaculate bob and oversized sunnies, regarded by many as the most powerful and scary person in the fashion world. I was eager to see what wisdom this doyenne had to offer. The audience was made up of global corporate types, mainly men, all seated in a large auditorium. We were transfixed as this diminutive powerhouse of a woman made her way to the podium. But what transpired couldn’t have surprised me more. Anna started to speak and her voice trembled in a way I had never imagined from her. She made little eye contact with her audience and the papers she read from shook the whole way through what turned out to be a brilliantly crafted speech, full of insight and knowledge. I have rarely witnessed such humility and vulnerability.  

The audience gave her a standing ovation – her nervousness had enthralled and endeared her to us. It seems that the great Anna Wintour suffered from a touch of imposter syndrome and I’m convinced that her nerves at addressing such a large and influential audience had been key to the brilliance of her speech. She had clearly prepared so diligently in a way that a more arrogant person wouldn’t have. Trust me, I have listened to plenty of terrible speeches where the speaker is extremely confident but is happy to wing it with little more than hot air and a swaggering attitude trying to make up for their content. After Anna’s speech, I knew that self-doubt could be a powerful suit in our armour, just as it could be in yours. 

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I have also worked with the “fake it to make it” type. People who were nervous but worked hard and the ‘faking’ became less pronounced as their confidence grew alongside their achievements. Then, of course, there is the cunning type who pretends to be so much better than they are in reality without ever achieving the knowledge or skill they are faking. Like one man in a senior leadership role I once worked with who, in my eyes, was bursting with confidence but showed little talent to justify it. The most irritating thing was that the bosses all liked him and believed in his success. I failed to see what he was good at but assumed he must have hidden strengths. He didn’t: he was faking it – big time. He ultimately got found out after he carelessly sent an email to a competitor that revealed inappropriate commercial information. After his dramatic sacking, it turned out he’d also had a reputation for sexually harassing interns. That episode taught me to be sceptical around anyone who seems overly self-assured. 

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I have a strong suspicion that most of your colleagues are not half as confident as they appear to be and are probably just as filled with the same doubt as you. The genuine deceivers are actually quite rare. My hunch is that if you were all to have an honest conversation about it, you’d discover you had more in common than you think.

I also want to reassure you that having a touch of anxiety is not a hindrance to success – the trick is calling out your imposter’s voice for what it is. Try to accept it as a tool urging you to be more diligent and pushing you to be better. This way you’ll learn to control it before it controls you. Also, your worrying is actually key to your diligence and pride in your work. When you learn how to balance your anxiety with pleasure at your achievements, you’ll discover that the nagging voice in your head will quieten down and one day disappear entirely.  

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Instead of asking yourself ‘Am I the best?’, reframe the question to ‘What have I achieved so far?’ or ‘How can I make more of an impact?’ Be considerate to other colleagues and mentor those who are younger and less experienced than you – this will remind you how much you do know. Seek feedback from your bosses whenever you can and ask for as much extra training as possible. A learning mindset will also help ease your fears.  

Finally, practise swapping tentative language such as “perhaps” and “maybe” to “I can”. Gradually your confidence will grow and one day it will feel real. Meanwhile, learn to love your imposter a little – most high-achievers do.  

The Honest Boss has held senior management positions at some of the world’s most well-respected companies. With over 25 years of experience under her belt directing and mentoring teams of people around the globe, managing multi-million-pound budgets and representing brands on the international stage, she’s more than qualified to help sort out your work woes. So, whether you’re feeling overlooked for a promotion, struggling with being back in the office or you’ve thrown up in front of your manager, The Honest Boss is here to give you no-bullshit career advice.

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