Why it’s okay to doubt yourself at work

Heels & Green
8 min readMar 31, 2021

“Imposter syndrome isn’t “always good” or “always bad”; it’s a much more complex phenomenon than it’s been represented to be.”

-Basima Tewfik

A lot of the research and thought pieces on imposter syndrome in women focus on the challenges that come with experiencing doubt. There is also a realization that imposter syndrome is prevalent amongst marginalized groups such as women and black people. So as an African woman, imposter syndrome is a real problem. I have felt the effects of this experience and can confirm that it's crippling. However, in this article, I will focus on the positive side of imposter syndrome. I know! I was also surprised and curious when I first came across this concept.

How can imposter syndrome possibly be a positive experience?

It’s reasonable that a lot of the conversations frame imposter syndrome as a harmful thing. Having a chronic sense of unworthiness can bring misery and discourage us from pursuing our goals¹. Then again, I believe that having a healthy amount of doubt is necessary for learning. When we doubt ourselves, we are aware that we don’t know as much as we’d like to know. This awareness can spark curiosity and the motivation to learn.

On the other hand, the absence of doubt can easily lead to a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect. This bias leads people to overestimate their competence as they aren’t aware of their own skill level as well as that of others. For simplicity sake, I’ll call this phenomenon “the overconfidence effect”. It's not difficult to envision overconfidence at play. You can easily think of the uncle who believes that they are a political analyst because they watch the news and read the newspaper every day. There is also that aunt who always seems to know every Coronavirus conspiracy theories thanks to Whatsapp. You can even refer to personal examples of overconfidence if you are willing to be brutally honest with yourself. The overconfidence effect impacts everyone (although some more than others).

In my attempts to caution overconfidence, I am usually met with resistance.

“Surely, there is a difference between having a willingness to learn and doubting oneself to a point that it's crippling?”

-H&G community discussion point

It's true- doubt can often be rooted in distorted thinking about our capabilities. African women are especially more likely to doubt their legitimate competence because of the patriarchal nature of our societies and cultures. Our capabilities are constantly undermined and even suspected especially in fields that are deemed technical or complex. The doubt generated by such damaging belief systems can be overwhelming and easily lead to inaction. This kind of doubt is definitely not helpful and should be overcome. I just don’t think that attempts to completely eliminate doubt are particularly helpful or even healthy.

A lot of the conventional advice on dealing with imposter syndrome touches on speaking to people who have similar experiences and creating work environments where people can feel valued and appreciated. You can also never miss that occasional “Just believe in yourself!” cliche. This advice is well-meaning and very much valid but I have found it quite impractical. In Kenya, we use the phrase:

Meaning- things on the ground are very different! This phrase has become so widely used because it's VERY relatable in the African context. We have years of experience in engaging with concepts and plans from our leaders and getting thoroughly disappointed when we later face reality. This constant reality check is also experienced in the workplace. For instance, there may be human resources policies and manuals in place that are aimed at creating a better working environment but on the ground, everyone knows that the powerful bunch can comfortably act inappropriately. Attempts to overcome one’s doubt in an unreliable environment can feel so futile. On the other hand, few people have the luxury of removing themselves from a work environment that fuels imposter syndrome. With high youth unemployment rates, African job markets favour employers as job seekers are left with limited options.

For me, the conventional imposter syndrome strategies sometimes provided temporary relief but I always found myself going back to doubt-mode when faced with a work opportunity that seemed intimidating. I’d talk it through with a friend or mentor and would have my feelings validated. I would get the reassurance that I am capable and had many examples to refer to. This would then give me some confidence to take up a challenge head-on. The burst of motivation was however very short-lived. One sly comment from a client and I would be back to square one- anxious, doubtful and wondering what was wrong with me. The confident state felt very brittle and sometimes I’d even feel pretentious for it. It also didn’t take me long to realize that people massively penalized confident women when they make mistakes. Whenever I proposed or challenged something confidently and it turned out wrong, I’d feel so terrible that sitting with the initial self-doubt seemed like a better idea. The whole “overcome your imposter syndrome” narrative didn’t seem very empowering to me.

Turns out that I wasn’t far off with my suspicion. Studies show that hesitant leaders are actually more effective. They are aware of what they don’t know, are likely to seek more help and aren’t afraid to change their minds. There was no evidence that imposter thoughts impeded the leaders’ performance when they were working. With this in mind, things started to make a bit more sense. The missing piece for me wasn’t a lack of confidence, it was believing that I needed to be confident before acting. My attempts to build confidence beforehand quickly led me to the overconfidence category. I’d be very sure of myself when making suggestions and would intentionally block out any doubt. In this state, I was less likely to change my mind or triple check something before presenting it. I started becoming prone to mistakes and the feedback I got quickly disintegrated my confidence and took me back to square one.

From my experience, it was clear that the solution was not to anticipate confidence beforehand but to take up challenging things in the face of doubt. Resolve came from embracing the doubt as a signal of discomfort and not something that needed to be conquered. Authentic confidence would develop from overcoming challenging tasks. After accepting the doubt, it then became easier to explore and dissect the parts that were a result of genuinely not knowing what I needed to know and the parts that were rooted in being insecure about my capabilities.

Doubts about our knowledge gap aren’t necessarily bad. They can help us stay clear of overconfidence and pursue intellectual humility especially when we face uncertainty and need to constantly update our assessments of the world. Conversely, doubts about our capabilities can be counterchecked with reality. Are there any examples in the past where you’ve done something challenging and surprised yourself? If you can think of something then you are definitely capable of taking up things that seem difficult. If not, you can take up the challenge and dare to surprise yourself.

Another common pushback I get when I bring this idea is:

“But what if imposter syndrome is just the parts of doubt in one’s capabilities? Surely, it's dangerous to tell people to accept their imposter syndrome especially if their environment is fueling it.”

Well, firstly, I think that the feelings of doubt often come very mixed up. Given our tendency to find comfort in knowing, it’s worthwhile challenging ourselves to sit in the unknown. This way, any untrue self-beliefs that we have picked up from society can easily be identified. For example, if you came across an interesting job but you don’t fulfil all the requirements, you may feel like you don’t qualify and therefore not want to submit your application. The wave of doubt may be catalyzed by a combination of realities such as:

  1. Because of societal conditioning, you believe that you need to be perfect before you take a chance
  2. There are people who are more qualified than you are and you’ll have a slim chance of getting the job
  3. You don’t know enough and have a lot to learn before you can even do well in the interview
  4. Many people get jobs that they aren’t 100% qualified for but they still grow into their role and succeed
  5. Employers tend to discriminate against women and any shortcoming on your end will be judged more harshly
  6. Although you don’t check all the boxes, you have many transferable skills that make you really suitable for the job
  7. You feel lazy to write an application that has a high chance of getting rejected, so why bother?
  8. You can probably get the job but it will be super challenging at the beginning
  9. As a woman, you will be judged very harshly if you take up the job and don’t deliver immediately

All the above can be true at the same time! You can accept that you don’t know much and chances are low but perhaps you were able to pass a very tough subject in school even with slim chances so you know that you can handle difficult topics when feeling uncertain. An acceptance framework allows you to boldly take action and apply for the job while also ensuring that you thoroughly prepare for the interview and increase your chances of getting the job. If you do get the job, you will be able to develop authentic confidence in your ability to do well at interviews.

But what if imposter syndrome creeps up again on the first day of work? That's okay! I stand by my statement: it's okay to doubt yourself at work! It's the follow-up internal conversation that matters.

Wanjiku Kimani- Founder, Heels & Green

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[1] Adam Grant. 2021. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know



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