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Impostor Syndrome: The Flip Side of the Dunning-Kruger Effect

About this Publication

From an early age, I learned to devalue my skills and knowledge, and this habit followed me into my Agile career. When I learned the term “Impostor Syndrome” to describe this phenomenon, research helped me learn to accurately assess my abilities.

1.      Introduction

I first heard the term “Impostor Syndrome” a little over a year ago, when I was talking with a colleague after a Tampa Bay Scrum Masters Guild meeting about how much we learned from that evening’s presentation. She told me that sometimes the meetings made her feel like a fraud—everyone else knew so much and she knew so little. Her admission stunned me. I had relied on her expertise and wisdom multiple times. I said as much. “I’m the one who should feel like a phony,” I added.

“That’s just Impostor Syndrome,” she said. “I’m trying to get over it. You should, too.”

The term was new to me, but the feeling was one I had struggled with for as long as I could remember. Get over it? First, I needed to find out more about what it was, now that I knew it had a name.

2.      What is Impostor Syndrome?

Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term “Impostor Syndrome” in 1978 to describe high-achieving individuals, particularly women[1] who believe that their achievements are based on luck or fraud and that they do not deserve their success. Clance and Imes discovered that the childhoods of Impostor Syndrome sufferers fell into one of two patterns.

In the first pattern, the child’s family designated her as “the smart one” of the family. They told her that she was “gifted” and expected her to achieve great things, effortlessly. When she later fell short of this ideal of genius as “achievement without effort,” she began to believe that luck, not merit, explained her success.

In the second pattern, the family designated some other child in the family—often a sibling but sometimes a cousin—as “the smart one.” The sufferer’s family instead told her that she was the “charming” or “sensitive” one of the family. Regardless of her level of achievement, she could never be “the smart one,” and she came to believe that her success was due to social skills and manipulation.

Regardless of which family pattern occurred, the Impostor Syndrome sufferer became convinced that she was neither skilled nor knowledgeable, and that exposure as an impostor could happen at any time. (Clance and Imes)

3.      Origin Story

My story reflects the first pattern.

According to family lore, I learned to talk early, and learned to read before the age of four. Everyone predicted that I would achieve anything I set my mind to. I was light-years ahead of my classmates in school. Interested in everything, I absorbed information at first glance or on first hearing. But it didn’t take long until I started to experience limitations to my supposedly limitless ability. The first was in music. Given a recorder, I could play any piece they gave me . . . in the key of C. But then they threw a B flat at me. I couldn’t make my fingers and my mind work together. I had to practice.

Afraid that people would find out I wasn’t a natural Mozart, I announced that I didn’t like playing the recorder, and quit. I got away with it because I had so many interests that it wasn’t unusual for me to move on.

I ran into my next failure with mathematics. Arithmetic had been easy, but more advanced concepts threw me. Set theory? Bases other than ten? Matrices? I barely kept up, and only through effort that I kept hidden.

I hid it too well. In junior high school, my parents signed me up for “gifted” classes in Mathematics and English. Surrounded by classmates at least as smart as (and often smarter than) I was, I had to struggle to stay abreast of them even in subjects in which I used to excel without study.

My family still called me a genius, but genius meant effortless achievement. Now, everything required effort. I put up a cocky, self-assured front, but the feeling that I was a fraud grew. I began to approach any test or project with dread—what if this were the time I finally failed to hide it any longer?

The feeling followed me throughout my academic career. I went to college, but dropped out when the conviction that I would never succeed became a self-fulfilling prophecy. My GPA dropped so low that if you squared it, you would get a lower number.[2] I kicked around in a series of dead-end jobs until a former professor ran into me at the Waldenbooks where I was measuring out my time in ISBN numbers. “You were meant for more than this,” he told me, and urged me to go back to school.

After earning my BA, I went to graduate school, less out of hunger for an advanced degree than because there was a recession going on and I couldn’t find a job. Fear followed me like my shadow. Surrounded by people smarter and better-read than I was, I concluded that I’d been accepted into the program through luck. I barely passed my comprehensive exams, and turned in the minimum length required for my Master’s Thesis. After the Master of Arts degree was conferred upon me, I didn’t feel like I had mastered anything.

4.      Agile Impostor

After graduating, a failed stint as a teacher did nothing to assuage my belief that I was incompetent. I found work as a help desk technician, thanks to having tinkered with computers as a hobby. My penchant for finding bugs triggered a series of serendipitous events that led me to a job as a software QA tester.

At no point in this journey did I ever feel as though I knew what I was doing. I had no formal education in computer science, and the training I was promised never materialized. I didn’t press for it, because the last thing I wanted to do was tell my boss, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” for fear he would say, “Yeah, we’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. How about we find you a couple of empty boxes to pack up your things?”

I kept my head down. I had no idea how I was bamboozling everyone, but I was getting by. And then one day, the company I worked for was acquired by a company that used Scrum.

My manager said, “Hey, Sam, can you run a few meetings?”

You bet I could.

Off I went to a Certified Scrum Master class. I came back eager to put into practice everything I’d learned. I had a rulebook, and we were darned well going to follow it. I had not become a Scrum Master. I had become a Scrum Martinet.

Of course, that didn’t work. The team complained that I was too rigid, inflexible. And when I didn’t listen, they complained to my manager, who stepped in and told me to take it down a notch. When I did, a miracle happened.

Velocity went up. Quality went up. Team satisfaction went up. “You’re doing a great job,” my manager said. I couldn’t see it. What was I doing that had any effect?

It was almost a relief when my division was shuttered and I was laid off along with the rest of the team. Almost. Try looking for a job when you’re convinced you aren’t any good at the only thing you have any experience at. I applied for every Scrum Master job I saw in the Tampa Bay Area.

Crickets.

Zero responses.

I couldn’t even get an interview, and I knew why: everyone had finally seen through me. They knew, just from looking at my résumé, that I was a fraud, and had no business leading a Scrum team.

I took a QA Lead job to pay the bills, but the organization was not Agile. It practiced a heavyweight, sequential SDLC process. I was bored and unhappy, and kept looking for a way back into the Agile world. I found it through the Tampa Bay Agile community, and the newly-formed Tampa Bay Scrum Masters Guild.

Because I knew that if I opened my mouth, I’d expose my ignorance, I promised myself that I would merely listen and observe at my first Guild meeting. I’m glad I did. The stories I heard sounded so familiar, the problems identical to ones I’d encountered: Sprint Planning is tedious. My developers want to estimate in days instead of story points. My retrospectives just turn into complaint sessions and nothing ever gets better.

The familiarity gave me hope. Maybe I wasn’t as bad a Scrum Master as I’d thought. Maybe if I stuck around and attended enough meetings, I’d absorb enough to get by as a Scrum Master. If I could ever get an interview.

Eventually, I found a Scrum Master position, thanks to contacts I’d made through the Guild. On my first day, the old fears resurfaced. My new coworkers were crazy smart, and highly capable. How long would it take before my new boss realized that he had made a mistake in hiring me?

I shoved that thought aside. I reasoned that since everyone else was, in fact, highly intelligent and good at what they did, that I must have something going for me. And for the first few months, I operated as if I had nothing to worry about.

My first team thrived, increasing their velocity soon after I started. They raved about my performance. I took on a second team, and spun up a third from scratch. The Vice President of Engineering sent me to the office in Tallinn, Estonia, to teach Agile and Scrum to a team there, and then had me present workshops to every developer in the company.

You might think those successes would mean something to me.

But a thought pattern built over decades is not so easily derailed. Doubt began to creep back in. I turned every success into failure in my mind. Increases in velocity were all due to the team’s efforts, and had nothing to do with me. The new team that was doing so well succeeded because of their talents, in spite of my dubious guidance. The trip to Estonia wasn’t a vote of confidence; I was simply the only one who was willing to go.

That is where my head was when I first heard the term Impostor Syndrome and began to research it. I discovered that it was more common that I could have imagined. Even Justice Sonia Sottomayor has admitted to struggling with it. Of her appointment to the United States Supreme Court, she has said, “It got worse when I joined the court.” (Abraham)

How could I get over it, though? Advice to “just push on through” wasn’t satisfactory. I needed to unlearn this behavioral pattern. I remembered something I’d read years before that suggested I could.

5.      The Flip Side of the Dunning-Kruger Effect

In their 1999 paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It,” Cornell University psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning described a phenomenon in which people who lack competence in a domain requiring abstract knowledge or wisdom will nevertheless rate themselves as highly skilled. In four studies, they found that subjects who were in the bottom quartile of competence in the domains studied, “grossly overestimated their ability relative to their peers” estimating their abilities at the 58th percentile or higher, depending on the domain. (Kruger and Dunning)

Figure 1: Perceived ability to recognize humor as a function of actual test performance (Kruger and Dunning)

What does the Dunning-Kruger Effect have to do with Impostor Syndrome? The latter is, after all, the opposite of the former. But there is a flip side to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In the original studies, performers in the bottom quartile were not the only ones whose self-assessment was inaccurate. In each study, “those in the top quartile actually underestimated their ability relative to their peers.” Participants whose test performance was in the 86th percentile in logic, for example, “estimated it to be at the 68th percentile.” (ibid)

Figure 2: Perceived logical reasoning ability and test performance as a function of actual test performance (Kruger and Dunning)

Dunning and Kruger did not pursue further studies into top scorers at the time, and focused instead on helping people identify and overcome the limitation inherent in believing that they were more skilled than they were. They found that merely being made aware of the discrepancy between their self-assessment and their actual performance improved the ability of bottom quartile performers to accurately assess their abilities. I drew comfort from that finding. If weak performers could learn not to over-estimate themselves, I could certainly learn not to under-estimate my abilities.

6.      Unlearning Impostor Syndrome

I found techniques to help in Clance’s and Imes’s original paper on Impostor Syndrome, which I adapted to my circumstances. I also adapted tools I used to help my teams improve and fine-tune their performance.

6.1      Build a Feedback Community

Clance and Imes found that a group setting was particularly effective in combatting Impostor Syndrome. When one person in a group setting shares her feeling of being a fraud, “others are able to share theirs. They are . . . relieved to find they are not alone.” (Clance and Imes) Participants see the dynamic at work in others and realize that the feeling doesn’t match reality.

I wasn’t interested in joining a therapy group, but I saw a way to build a community that could serve the same purpose. As I mentioned above, I first encountered the term when someone I knew confided her experience with it to me, and helped me recognize the phenomenon in myself. I borrowed her courage and began to speak about it with other people in my circle. So many of them had the same response: “You feel incompetent? But you’re really great. Now, I have a reason to feel incompetent.” As I found this odd little tribe, I would point out where they were succeeding, and they would do the same for me. This became an informal “mutual mentoring” effort. By giving honest, gentle feedback to each other, we learn to recognize the value of our own experience.

6.2      Correct Magical Thinking

There is in Impostor Syndrome a kind of magical thinking at work. Because she doubts her expertise, the Impostor predicts that she will fail. Success becomes a surprise attributable to luck.

Here’s a personal example. Long before I became involved in Agile, I took the exam for the American Society for Quality’s entry-level certification, Certified Quality Improvement Associate. I studied hard, but on the morning of the test, I told my wife, “I’ll probably fail the first time, but at least I’ll have a good idea of what the test is like for the second time.”

I passed, but I viewed this success as a fluke. I told myself that I’d been lucky that they only asked things I’d just read about, or that I’d guessed right. And I told myself that probably, that certification wasn’t valuable, anyway. I didn’t even tell my boss about it until he asked, a month or so later, if I’d ever gotten my results.

To correct this magical thinking, Clance and Imes suggest that, “The client needs to become aware of the superstitious, magical aspects of her impostor belief and must consciously experiment with changing her ritualistic behaviors.”

In other words, you learn to predict success.

I applied this technique when I was preparing my Certified Scrum Practitioner application and occasionally found myself thinking that I’d be lucky if I were accepted. When I noticed that thought, I immediately challenged it. I’d say it aloud. “I will get this certification. I have the experience, and I can demonstrate it.”

When I was notified that my application had been accepted, I wasn’t surprised, and took pride in the achievement.

Whenever I’m facing a challenge, I set aside time to identify the reasons I’ll succeed, and to focus on what success looks like. I expect success, and congratulate myself when it happens.

6.3      Enlist Mentors and Ask for Honest Feedback

Another technique Clance and Imes recommend is for “the client to recall all the people she thinks she has fooled, to tell them in fantasy how she conned or tricked them, and to have her imagine out loud how each person would respond to her.” In this way, the client realizes that capable, intelligent people are not easily fooled and give honest feedback.

I took this line of thinking in a tangential direction—not only were the people in my past good judges of performance, but there were people in my present who were also likely to give me honest, effective feedback.

I started with my manager. He was experienced and skilled. He had recruited me, he believed in me, and he wanted me to do well. I told him what I was dealing with, and asked him to observe a Sprint Retrospective (after getting permission from the team). I asked him to note my strengths and to identify something he thought I could improve.

Afterward, I was surprised to hear that he named among my strengths a few characteristics I’d thought I’d lacked: I did a great job of making sure everyone had a voice in the discussion—even the two team members who were calling in from remote locations. And where he’d noted something I could improve, we created a plan to work on it.

My Product Owners also helped. I asked questions like, “If you were facilitating our Daily Scrum, what would you do differently?” Specific, focused questions helped them give me useful feedback. I stopped trying to correct weaknesses I didn’t actually have and focused on strengthening my performance in ways that mattered.

Another source of feedback came from my teams. Closing each retrospective with a feedback on its quality acted as a reinforcing mechanism. I could check my perception against the feedback. When they began to be similar more often than not, it helped me learn to trust myself. The feedback also helped me craft more effective retrospectives, which increased team satisfaction, and my own sense of competence.

Over time, I began to internalize these trusted critiques. When I was uncertain of my performance, I might ask myself, “What would Marc say about this?’ Even when my support network was not immediately available, I started to know what they would say.

6.4      Record and Process Positive Feedback

Clance and Imes write, “A helpful homework assignment is to have the client keep a record of positive feedback she receives about her competence and how she keeps herself from accepting this feedback.”

I carry a small, pocket notebook where I record feedback I’ve been given—and also my own positive thoughts about successes as they occur. For example, when I’ve introduced a team to a new concept or way of working, and it all falls together, I write that down.

I used these notes as fodder for my daily journal, in which I write about not only the feedback, but how it affected me. The notes are also useful during low moments. The reminders that others see me as highly skilled serve as confidence boosters when I need them.

6.5      Putting Agile into Practice

The twelfth Agile principle is, “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” I find it worthwhile to do the same thing as an individual. My pocket notebook and journal are the primary artifacts I bring into personal retrospectives.

The classic format works very well: what went well, what went poorly, what could I do differently? The inner critic—the voice that loves to accuse me of being a fraud—hates that first question. But if I require myself to first reflect on what’s been going right, it is easy to channel the inner critic in the final stages. I can reject false premises, and where I identify actual problems to address, I make concrete plans to address them, rather than wallowing in self-loathing. Sometimes, I can bring those problems to my feedback community or my mentors in order to get perspective.

7.      Closing

I don’t want to make it sound as though I have the problem completely licked. Far from it. In fact, when I got the email saying that this session proposal had been accepted, my first thought was, “Oh no! What if they realize I don’t know anything about Impostor Syndrome?” This is a continuing journey.

I hope that the story of my experience—and especially the techniques I’ve described—are useful to you. But it is important to note that I am not a psychologist. If you find that what I’ve described does not work for you, leave it behind. If, while trying these techniques, you find that your symptoms do not improve or get worse, please see a trained professional. I cannot stress this enough: for strong presentations of Impostor Syndrome, self-help material is not enough. Someone with training to help people overcome it is essential.

One final anecdote, if you will, though, to demonstrate how far I’ve come. Last year, a recruiter asked me if I were interested in looking at a new opportunity. I had just that week accepted a new position at New York Life Direct in Tampa, which is notoriously hard to get into. When I told her that, her eyes went wide. “Do you know how long they’ve been trying to fill that slot? You must be amazing.”

And I thought, “I really am.”

8.      Acknowledgements

Although this paper describes my personal journey, I could not have done it without the input and support of many people along the way. First, I’d like to thank Sue Burk, my shepherd for writing this report. Her insight and experience was invaluable in helping me shape my ideas into a coherent narrative. My colleagues in the Tampa Bay Scrum Masters Guild also provided crucial feedback and support for which I am deeply grateful. I’d especially like to mention three: Adam Ulery, who has given me multiple opportunities to speak to the group; Becky Hartman, without whose insight and guidance in developing my coaching style I would not have achieved as much as I have; and Christy Erbeck, whose encouragement to submit a session proposal to Agile Alliance 2017 led directly to this moment. I’d also like to thank my employer, New York Life Direct, and my manager, Janet Waite, for allowing me to take advantage of this opportunity. Finally, I am deeply grateful to my wife, Carolyn Haack, for her support and for understanding my many evening absences to attend Tampa Bay Agile events in pursuit of enhancing my career.

 

REFERENCES

Abraham, Sneha “Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor Visits Pomona College” https://www.pomona.edu/news/2015/10/23-supreme-court-justice-sonia-sotomayor-visits-pomona-college

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, Vol. 15, No 3, Fall 1978.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 6, 1999

 

[1] Because Impostor Syndrome affects women much more frequently than men, this paper uses the feminine pronoun for general statements.

[2] At least I grasped enough math to be able to make this joke at the time.

Copyright 2017 is held by the author.

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