‘Unconfidently competent’ and how mindsets and the mind can cause imposter syndrome

Sometimes even when we’re competent we can feel out of our depth. Lots of professionals, lots of the time, can feel like they don’t deserve to be where they are, doing what they do. Imposter syndrome can be crippling. Ironically it can compromise our ability to do our job and develop. It can also make us miserable. It makes life harder — personally and professionally.

Imposter syndrome is tightly connected to how we think and feel about skills and knowledge. I’ve been comparing what I know about the imposter phenomenon with some of the ways I understand skills, learning and growth. It’s helped me to consider where imposter syndrome might begin. I think once you know the causes of these feelings, they feel more controllable and manageable.

To start, I want to take a quick trip to the model of conscious and unconscious competence.

A version of the un/conscious model of competence

It seems obvious that we can’t improve and develop skills until we’re aware that we don’t yet have them and that they’re important.

Once we’ve acquired a skill or knowledge there’s usually a stage of grappling with it until we bring it under control. This stage of conscious effort is usually replaced with a less conscious execution as we move through proficiency towards mastery. This is how I think about how we develop competency — recognising the elements of craft and practicing.

I quite often use the phrase ‘professional practice’, in contrast to ‘professional performance’. I’ve written about professional practice and the importance of the Growth Mindset before. I’ll be referring to these ideas in this piece. If you have no idea what ‘growth’ or ‘fixed’ mindset means, please read the accompanying article.

A self-authoring mind

Robert Kegan has given me another model for thinking about the mind and our developement. Kegan describes orders of consciousness — beginning at ‘The impulsive mind’ of children who become self-aware through to the ‘self-transforming mind’ capable of complex thought, reflection and action.

Kegan describes three “minds” that we see and develop most-often in professional life. ‘The Socialised mind’ sees our meaning-making largely shaped by external sources. In professional life, those operating at this level are likely to be team players and faithful followers. They seek direction and work towards aligning activities with others and external expectations. They are reliant.

At the next level of what Kegan labels ‘mental complexity’ is the ‘self-authoring mind.’ For the self-authoring mind your own internal thoughts shape meaning-making. You’re likely to be agenda-driven — having a clear sense of your own personal objectives. You have your own frame for situations and challenges. You provide your own direction. You’re much more independent.

Kegan also describes the ‘self-transforming mind’ of those who move “from problem-solving to problem finding”. They’re able to hold contradictory and contrasting views at once and have a more sophisticated approach to leadership and action.

You can read more about this model in Kegan’s work, including ‘An everyone culture’ and ‘The Evolving Self.’

Imposter syndrome as a fixed mindset

I’ve started to think of imposter syndrome as just a type of fixed mindset. I’ve been using the Burch competency model and the work of Kegan and Dweck to explain my theory.

Unconscious incompetence

When we begin in professional practice we’re (mainly) unconsciously incompetent. We’re incapable of objectively judging our competence because we’re unconscious of it. We could be blissfully ignorant of how incompetent we are — including those enjoying Dunning-Kruger effect. Or we might just not recognise the true value of the skills we lack. We’re unintentional in the way we relate to specific skills.

Becoming conscious

At some point we’ll smack into the Interrobang of incompetence. Something will make us aware of our incompetence. This might be accompanied by our first feelings of imposter syndrome. We might feel fear or guilt at finding out we’re incompetent. Or it might be a much more positive experience — depending on the development culture that surrounds us and our mindset.

The culture and our mindset shape our response to any growth and development opportunity. They can create (at least) two tracks for us to follow when we discover we’re incompetent.

Growing competence

Imagine using a growth mindset in this situation. Some event has provided objective and external evidence of your incompetence. At the same time you start to shape your own definition of competence. I think the way you translate the external definition that made you aware of your incompetence into a subjective, self-authored definition of competence will determine your relationship to the skill.

A growth mindset will encourage you to take on the challenge of acquiring the competence. You’ll ‘author’ your own definition of what competence looks like. And it will be underpinned by a belief in practice over performance. You’ll have a healthy relationship to feedback and instruction. You’ll become intentional in your development of the competency, increasing your skill and hopefully moving towards a reflective practice that results in a high degree of proficiency or mastery.

The key stage is the definition of competency. You consciously shape your (evolving) relationship to the skill or knowledge. You choose to acknowledge the gap, you become intentionally development, begin a conscious relationship with the skill and your growth mindset allows you to understand that this relationship will evolve.

An aside: Fourth stage vulnerability

Unconscious competence does come with risks — because it’s less intentional. There’s a chance that you’ll fall into unconscious incompetence (through complacency). Or feelings of imposter syndrome might surface due to losing grip or confidence in your ‘definition of competence’ or your growth mindset.

The similarity of this stage to the beginning of the process suggests the solution. Compare the external reality to an objective measure of competency. Adopt a more reflective practice. Revisit your definition of competency. Re-booting your intentionally developmental growth mindset should address both incompetence or imposterism. The growth mindset seems to hold the key to overcoming imposter syndrome. Lets compare a fixed mindset approach to the same story.

Fixed mindset imposters

When someone in a ‘Fixed mindset’ hits the Interrobang of incompetence they have a more negative experience.

The external evidence of incompetence is intensified by the belief that skills can’t be acquired or developed. They believe that if they can’t do it now, they’ll never be able to. They give up the development opportunity and don’t engage with the chance to grow.

There might be another scenario where someone with an emerging or under-developed growth mindset — more influeced by the socialised mind — believe they can develop the skill, but not to the level of their colleagues. Here their definition of competence also sets them up to fail — they’ll be unable to recognise their true competence.

The only way to develop skill is through practice. The most effective form is conscious practice — leading to conscious competence. But the fixed mindset equates the effort of practice with an innate ‘inability’ rather than ability. Practice isn’t empowering in a fixed mindset. So even if they do ‘perform’ the skill repeatedly and acquire a level of proficiency, it will be a long and winding road. The repeated failures will only serve to reinforce the assumption of the fixed mindset. And if/when they do acquire the skill, they’re unlikely recognise their skill or associate it with ability or competency. Someone locked in a fixed mindset can become unconsciously competent — or unconfidently competent. Each time they become consciously aware of performing the skill (even if they do it well) their ‘fixed mindset’ equates the effort with incompetence and sparks imposterism.

Compare our inside to others’ outside

Unconfident competence is just another name for the imposter syndrome. It stems from becoming fixed to a faulty definition of competency — dismissing your ability or unfairly comparing yourself to others.

Imposter syndrome strikes when we compare our inside to others’ outside. We know the effort that we spent in our practice and for our accomplishments. But it’s sometime hard to appreciate the effort that others are spending. And in a fixed mindset, effort undermines our confidence in our competency.

Our mind and mindset affects our ability to form a healthy definition of competence and professional practice. If we adopt a growth mindset when the Interrobang of incompetence hits, we’re able to see an opportunity, not a threat. Maintaining a growth mindset as we shape a definition of competency sets us off on a path of instruction, feedback and intentional practice — the shortest route to competence. Telling ourselves that we can’t do something, or that we can’t do it as well as others will always lead to under-performance, a lack of competence and imposter feelings.

Ultimately our definition of competence should be a firm conviction, loosely held — a trait of a self-transforming mind. We should be open to the idea that professional competency is like potential — it’s ever-expanding. Being confidently competent rests on a definition of competence that acknowledges that we’re always capable of growth. We’re never done. Competency is never finished. Development doesn’t end.



I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)

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I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)