Imposter syndrome, performance reviews, and a little bit of CBT to ease the pain

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Our work lives are riddled with anxieties. Many of them are natural and fleeting, and we deal with them. One that haunts people, however, is imposter syndrome. The belief that we are a fraud, doubting our accomplishments and talents.

Each year (twice a year in my case), that feeling is amplified considerably by the dreaded performance review. If you're anxious about your abilities before performance review period, you're 1000x more so when it comes around. Over the course of this year, I've experimented with applying principles from the world of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to get a better handle on things. It's been challenging, but it has also helped a great deal.

So, what's CBT? Here's what Mind, a mental health charity, has to say about it:

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of talking treatment which focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feelings and behaviour, and teaches you coping skills for dealing with different problems.
It combines cognitive therapy (examining the things you think) and behaviour therapy (examining the things you do).
[..]
CBT is based on the idea that the way we think about situations can affect the way we feel and behave. For example, if you interpret a situation negatively then you might experience negative emotions as a result, and those bad feelings might then lead you to behave in a certain way.

So, when thinking about my abilities/performance, what are some of the negative thoughts I had (have?) and what behaviours did they create?

You might boil my negative thoughts down to something like, "I'm not a good Product Manager and one day I'll be found out". I arrived at this by spending time looking at specific examples of feeling anxious or bad about something, and really digging into why I felt that way. It was hard, but an important first step. Understanding this negative thought, the one that follows me around, was a difficult process but incredibly empowering.

This belief lead to all kinds of emotions and behaviours:

  • Generalised anxiety, which manifested with the telltale signs; clammy palms, fiddling, tension, headaches, distraction-seeking etc.
  • Obsessive and paranoid thoughts; worrying about what people think, elevating small problems to large ones in my mind etc. Especially true when receiving criticism from customers who use my product.
  • Strong shifts in mood whenever I receive praise; going quickly from over-excitement (validation!) to strong self-doubt (they had to be wrong, I misled them in some way). This one was particularly challenging since joining Intercom because there's a strong feedback culture.
  • Holding back; avoiding/not seeking ways to share my learnings/experience with others, for fear that I'd set them on a wrong path or, worse, be found out as 'the bad PM'.

(My palms are sweaty just writing this down)

The core idea of CBT is that the things we think about ourselves/situations can affect how we feel and behave. When I applied this thinking to my situation, exploring that foundational belief ("not a good PM"), I discovered two thoughts that underpinned all of it:

  • The 'good' things I do are one-offs or flukes.
  • Positive feedback is untrue.

So, with my manager (I can't understate how valuable it was to have a manager open to this and engaging with it actively), we figured out a way to challenge those thoughts by recording and reflecting on my work and feedback in a slightly different way. The brag sheet was born. This is a place where we record feedback, work, and behaviours over time. We designed the sheet and our way of using it so that it's useful for a few things:

  • It maps back to Intercom's career ladder (a definition of the skills that PMs should be able to demonstrate at different levels) and my own professional goals (we set these every 6 months or so) so that I can see evidence/progress. This challenges the "I'm not a good PM" narrative.
  • We add to this consistently. This challenges the "good things are one-offs" narrative.
  • We discuss it regularly, reinforcing the feedback. This challenges the "positive feedback is untrue" narrative.
  • We can use this as an input into performance reviews, helping to avoid recency bias and to show impact in areas where the formal feedback may not mention it. A useful additional benefit.

Was all of this difficult? Yes. Very.

Has it fixed the problem? Somewhat. This is probably one of the most impactful things I've done to combat imposter syndrome and it's reduced the stress of the performance review cycle considerably. I still feel anxiety about these things, but I see things improving. I'm more confident and I've seen a very positive impact on the emotions/behaviours I listed above. This blog post is evidence of that.

If you struggle with imposter syndrome or similar thoughts, take some time for self reflection. "Why?" is an empowering question to answer.

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