GovLoop NextGen Explains- Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome About Speaking About Imposter Syndrome

In January 2020, before the pandemic, a friend asked me to speak at GovLoop’s evening mixer about imposer syndrome. I immediately told her it wasn’t a wellness topic I spoke about before, so why would she suggest me?

She assured me that I would be great at it and that it would be a great way to get my wellness business known in the DC region. I agreed.

I began preparing the presentation and wrapping my head around what type of experiences federal staff and civil servants might have that are related to Imposter Syndrome. The more I learned about it, the more I understood how applicable it was to this audience.

The video above gives an overview of the presentation. You can download the slides on Slide Share here.

Imposter Syndrome Basics

Imposter syndrome describes a collection of feelings and thoughts that you don’t deserve your success or accolades. You might explain your achievements as luck, being in the right place at the right time, or some other external attribute.

Over 70% of people experience imposter syndrome and it can happen to anyone in any industry at any time. It can even happen in different life settings you might encounter. You can have feelings like anxiety, fear, self-judgement, negative self-talk, self-doubt, procrastination, fear of failure, or even self-sabotage.

Imposter Syndrome in Federal Staff

For federal staff, their role in general places them in a predicament that can create imposter syndrome. Anyone who is seeking federal funding will work with federal staff who are often called Federal Project Officers, FPOs, or project officers.

Federal staff overseeing millions of dollars of tax-payer dollars are responsible for monitoring for waste, fraud, and abuse. They are looking for patterns of behavior, abnormalities, or financial evidence of misuse of government funds. Your project officer may be experiencing imposter syndrome and you wouldn’t even know it.

Real Life Example

When I started working in the federal government, I was a new macro-level social worker fresh out of graduate school. I received the prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship where I was allowed to learn the federal government over two years before transferring into a full time civil servant.

During this time, I was asked to go on a site visit to Florida. I explain that story a little more here. This visit was an entire 10 days of imposter syndrome.

I was asked to go on a last minute trip to Florida to see 9 grant sites with a senior project officer. I hadn’t been trained in grants. I didn’t know what the grant program was about. I had no idea about what happens in Florida or Florida policies and politics.

Yet when I stepped foot on campus of our grant sites, everyone looked at me like I was a rock star. The “Federal Team” were the main stars of the site visit. Everyone bent over backwards to try to impress us with a “dog and pony show”.

While the grantee was doing great at representing their work, I felt like I didn’t belong there in that capacity with such reverence. I didn’t believe that I had the capacity to do the job I had just been hired to do.

Govloop recapped my explanation of how imposter syndrome impacts civil servants with three bullets in this article. Here’s an excerpt:

What does imposter syndrome look like from a civil servant’s perspective? 

As a federal employee, you face challenges that are unique. “We are the face of the taxpayers’ dollars,” Veloz said.

That comes with pressure, priority and power. When you are not sure of yourself, it can be easy to feel like an imposter. “It’s the feeling that you get of being uncomfortable when you are at the edge of your comfort zone,” she added. Here are three key areas where government employees can often feel imposter syndrome:

  • Playing the expert. The public looks to you as an authority, expert and representative of the federal government’s perspective on important issues. But, remember, “It’s OK, even when you are being the expert, to be wrong, as long as you are being humble about it and you finally get to the correct answer,” Veloz said.
  • In government verses out of the government. You may be the expert in the government, but do you carry that expertise with you outside your federal job? For example, perhaps you are in a public health role at work but feel hesitant to speak on health-related issues outside of work. The key is knowing your role, what you were hired to do and where that power starts and ends.
  • Your seat at the adult table. When you are around people who have a significant amount of expertise and years in government, you can feel like you are playing big kid at the adult table. To combat this, “show up,” Veloz said. Put on your game face, and do not sit quietly because you are the new person. You have the talent and experience that people need to hear.”

Moving Past Imposter Syndrome

In the case of my Florida imposter syndrome trip, I finally realized that I did know enough to give feedback and suggestions to the grantees. I eventually got enough confidence during that trip to participate in high level conversations with state officials without feeling inadequate.

How did I do it?

Great question!

I owned up to my seat at the adult table. I realized that I was doing the best job I could while learning on the job, which is OK. I recognized my role of privilege as a federal project officer and how much people looked up to my position and what I said/did. I also owned up to my level of expertise, which at the time wasn’t the highest level… but I was an expert and did have something to offer.

You Might Be Wondering Why This Matters to You as a Grantee…

Here’s the bottom line. The people behind the federal funding are just that… real people. They have families, years of experience, passion, and feelings…just like you.

As a grantee creating a close relationship with your government project officer is important. If you are funded, you could be working with this person for YEARS. Some of my favorite colleagues are those who took their work as a grantee seriously and listened closely to my advice… which eventually produced successful sustainable results.

Even if your project officer isn’t particularly nice… you can create a close working relationship with them depending on how their role is being leveraged in the federal government at the moment. This is key because each administration views this role differently.

If you are striving to get federal funding, just remember… when you write your grant application you are writing to REGULAR PEOPLE. Always keep that in mind when writing for your audience.

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