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Coping with impostor syndrome

Zynga's Phuong Phillips explains what companies can do to help their staff suffering from impostor syndrome, and gives tips for those who constantly fear they are a fraud

Impostor syndrome is a relatively new concept, first coined in 1978 in a medical journal.

In an article called "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention," authors Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes highlighted that "despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise."

Phuong Phillips is chief legal officer for Zynga, having previously been the lead M&A attorney for Tesla and worked on the IPOs for Google and Netflix. But despite a very successful career, she is very familiar with impostor syndrome.

"Mine stemmed from just being a refugee immigrant to the United States and having English be my second language, and always having that fear that I would be grammatically incorrect," she tells the GamesIndustry.biz Academy. "And for many years I never did any public speaking because I was so afraid of looking like an impostor in terms of: 'This person can't be an expert, her English isn't perfect.'

"And for many years I never did any public speaking because I was so afraid of looking like an impostor"

"And it wasn't until four or five years ago that I was in the audience listening to a panelist, an incredibly respected, renowned white man, speaking about their expertise in the law. And I sat there and sort of laughed to myself because they were not grammatically correct and they didn't care. And I thought: if they can do that, I'm pretty sure I could do that, because I'm not that bad with English. It's just my second language."

For many women in industries that are traditionally male-dominated, impostor syndrome can also stem from constantly being the only woman in the room. Which is why it's also a phenomenon that is particularly prevalent in people from underrepresented backgrounds in general, regardless of their gender.

"Impostor syndrome is when women feel that they shouldn't be in the same room as their peers, because you feel like you're not qualified, you feel that you don't belong, because you don't have all the skill sets necessary," Phillips continues. "And I truly believe that impostor syndrome actually occurs in both men and women. I think women tend to be a little bit more vocal about it given sometimes in our roles we're the only women sitting in the room. And so it feels extra heavy."

Symptoms of impostor syndrome include:

  • Constant self-doubt and/or self-deprecation
  • Attributing your achievements to other people or factors outside your personal skills
  • A fear that you're letting people down or not meeting expectations, and as a consequence you tend to overwork to compensate
  • Setting yourself for failure by working towards unachievable goals or goals that you can't reach within the timeline you chose

"It's normal to [think] maybe this is not a good time to chime in. But to think that way in every single meeting?..."

"I think you and I both probably have been in a room before where we want to say something and we hold our tongues and so that's normal, but when you notice that you do it at every single meeting, that's when you should probably think: okay, I need to see what's going on here because I'm not adding to the conversation, in any of the conversations," Phillips adds.

"It's very normal to hold your tongue and [think] maybe this is not a good time to chime in. But to think that way in every single meeting? The company, the people in those meetings, they're losing that opportunity to hear your voice. That's when you should start thinking: maybe I should talk to someone about whether or not this is a shyness issue, or whether I'm just so afraid to speak up because I don't feel like I belong here."

Phillips shared tips and advice for fighting impostor syndrome as both a personal struggle and a managerial one.

Removing impostor syndrome from the recruitment process

If you're someone in an executive position or have the responsibility of managing other employees, you need to nip impostor syndrome in the bud before it gets a chance to blossom, and that starts with changing your approach to recruitment.

Impostor syndrome can start early, from the job requirements that you look at when you're applying for a job.

"When you look at a job spec, a man would say: 'heck, I got two out of ten of the bullets, I'm totally qualified for the job'," Phillips explains. "And women on the other hand have this need to be almost perfect. 'I don't have all ten of those requirements, maybe I shouldn't apply because I'm not qualified enough.' So you get that dynamic and it builds up as you grow into your career."

Phuong Phillips, chief legal officer at Zynga

This is an important step because candidates who feel impostor syndrome from the recruitment stage are likely to feel it during their entire time at the company, should they get the job. The doubt never truly goes away.

The words you choose to use in a job listing can be enough to discourage someone who has impostor syndrome from applying. Zynga uses a software that gender neutralises the job specs of its ads -- a fairly prominent one that you can use is Kat Matfield's gender decoder for instance.

"It's so easy to say: 'You must have experience in the gaming industry' as part of your job spec, but in reality not that many women are in the industry and so you've already blocked off a lot of applicants if they immediately see that [as] the first thing you have on there. So we have this software that will actually go and look through a job spec to make sure that it's gender neutral as well as ethnic neutral.

"The idea is to open up your network in terms of who you're going to interview. I remember in my particular case I was applying for a job where you must be a former general counsel or at least have the experience of a former public company general counsel, and some experience in the gaming industry. Well, I didn't have either and under normal circumstances I would have been: I'm not qualified. However the recruiter was like: 'No, we'd really like to bring you in' and that's how I got the job at Zynga."

Empower your staff

  • Make sure everyone's voice is heard

Meetings or situations in which staff are asked to voice their opinion are a very common occurrence in games -- game development is a team effort after all.

But impostor syndrome is particularly prevalent in these social situations, as speaking up during a meeting often feels like displaying your weaknesses or opening yourself up to criticism. Think about it as having a constant fear of being exposed as a fraud and having that secret revealed to the entire room.

"Oftentimes you feel impostor syndrome because you don't feel like your voice is welcomed in the room"

As a manager, it is your role to make sure your staff doesn't feel this way and reassure them that their voice is valued and should be heard.

"Oftentimes you feel impostor syndrome because you don't feel like your voice is welcomed in the room," Phillips says. "So as a manager if you sense that somebody is staying quiet -- not because they're shy but because they're afraid to speak up -- you should talk to them maybe before the meeting and say: hey, I would love for you to participate in this particular session, you would be fantastic with this, would you be willing to just like share your point of view?'

"Getting that individual to come forward and open the door to say: I'm here to support you, you're great, is what a manager should do to increase confidence. That's how the impostor syndrome slowly starts dissipating, when you have the support of your manager."

  • Create space for employee groups and mentorship programmes

Employee-led groups are also an invaluable tool so people feel like they belong in the company, which in the long-term really helps with appeasing impostor syndrome. And combining these groups with mentorship programmes will produce results tenfold.

Phillips is executive chair for the Women at Zynga group, which includes a couple of mentorship initiatives.

"[We pair] senior women with more junior women, and give mid-level women that opportunity to be both the mentee and the mentor," she explains. "The other programme that we offer is a 16-week executive coaching session to women at the cusp of their careers. And what we found is that oftentimes it's communication that prevents you from getting promoted. How are you communicating with people or how are you not communicating with people?

"And so we offer about ten women each semester a 16-week programme where we actually pair them up with an executive coach to walk them through the things that [they] can work on in order to get promoted."

Women at Zynga hosted last year a panel inspired by the book Alpha Girls by Julian Guthrie
  • Perpetuate a culture of kindness

Finally, as a manager, don't underestimate the power of kindness, and the necessity to tell your employees when they are doing a good job.

Phillips mentions that managers almost always take the time to point out things that went wrong, but seldom compliment a job well done.

"It's so rare these days -- and I always remind my managers -- to just send nice notes," Phillips says. "What I've discovered is that when you start doing that, then it becomes common culture and other people will start doing that.

"It makes me so proud because I'll just get wonderful emails coming from the business unit saying: 'hey this person in the legal team just killed it and I just wanted you to know'. It's the culture that we're trying to create at the company, or even just among your friends. Just a quick little note to say: 'hey you've really been helpful to me today'. And I know that sounds so cheesy but it actually works."

Advice for those who suffer from impostor syndrome

  • Rely on your support network to build confidence

Impostor syndrome has both the simplest and most complicated solution: you need to build up your confidence.

But because it's much easier said than done, you need to have allies, in your personal life and at work, that can help you build up that assurance that you are, indeed, worthy and competent. Having a successful career has a lot to do with having the right support network around you.

"The truth is if you really sat down and said: what is it that I bring that someone else can't bring? That list is actually quite long..."

"Affirmations are so important for us to move forward," Phillips says. "So it's having that close connection with a network or a group of friends that you trust and [ask]: 'Hey am I having impostor syndrome, am I being absolutely ridiculous?' And have those honest friends who are completely transparent talk through that with you.

"The other thing is reminding yourself that everybody has their own expertise and everybody has their own specialty. There's a reason why I'm qualified for this job. I may not be XYZ but I have my own attributes that I can bring. You got to focus on the positive and I know that that's really hard for us sometimes to do, but the truth is if you really sat down and said: what is it that I bring that someone else can't bring? That list is actually quite long, you just have to force yourself to go through that exercise maybe on a quarterly basis or yearly basis, depending on where you feel like you need that support. You have to somehow build that confidence within yourself by trusting that you have a skill set that somebody else doesn't have."

  • Review your achievements on a regular basis

In addition to reviewing your skills regularly, you should review your victories. When you suffer from impostor syndrome, it tends to be very difficult to clearly see what you achieved as you will often attribute it to someone else. But Phillips has a solution for that.

"On a monthly basis, I need you to update your resume. Not to leave, but to actually remind yourself of all the things that you did during that particular month. It's an ongoing addition for the next 12 months because by the time you get to your annual review cycle, you actually have a list of everything that you've worked on and it's incredibly powerful to see how many bullet points there are. It's also very helpful in terms of explaining to your manager all those achievements that you've made."

"I need you to update your resume. Not to leave, but to actually remind yourself of all the things that you did during that particular month"

That's an exercise she recommends to the women she mentors at Zynga and she says most of them come back to her saying that it has been an extremely positive change for them.

"[They] used to think: I haven't done anything. But then when [they] do this on a monthly basis, they realise how much they've accomplished at the company, and what they bring as an employee, as a leader, or whatever it is that they're working toward.

"It's interesting because you don't realise all that you do. And it doesn't always have to be work-related too. It could be something in your personal life that you want to add to that resume because it helps you remind you what you're able to balance and manage during a really crazy month or two."

When asked if impostor syndrome ever goes away, Phillips immediately replies: "Absolutely not."

"I don't think it does anyway," she laughs. "I think about where I am today and there are times where I sit there and think: what am I doing here? I don't know anything about the gaming industry and here I am giving advice. But then I step back and I realise: they trust me and I trust that I know the law. I may not know the gaming lingo as well as everybody else, but I can explain myself very clearly to people who are not lawyers. And that to me is a skill set that I'm really proud of.

"I always take it back to: I'm a refugee immigrant. I'm not going to use big words. I'm just going to explain it and if you get it then we're on the same page. I don't think it goes away because you're always trying to elevate yourself. Part of impostor syndrome I've just spun in a positive way because it keeps me humble, it keeps me curious, and it keeps me learning. What else do I need to learn to better myself as a leader, better myself as a lawyer, better myself as a manager? Impostor syndrome can be seen as a negative, but it also is quite positive at times so that you're always striving to be better.

"It's exhausting. But I think that's part of our nature. Those who want to be successful always feel like they have to climb higher. The key with impostor syndrome is recognising that you have it and also recognising that others have it. So long as people realise they're not the only ones in that position, they'll feel better about themselves."

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Marie Dealessandri avatar

Marie Dealessandri

Deputy Editor

Marie Dealessandri joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016 at B2B magazine MCV. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack.