Three Tips When You Just Don’t Know Something on the Job

The term “imposter syndrome” is being thrown around a LOT these days. If you’re not familiar with the term, it basically means when you attempt something, you feel like you’re not qualified—usually on the job, and usually when you’re trying to lead or show high competency for a certain task. And I’m not saying I’m not immune to it—feeling enough is a frequent struggle for me internally. And, every single time I try something new I think, who in the heck trusted me with this?! I really can’t screw this up, so how am I going to make it through? How am I going to look good?

For me, “not knowing” something sparks a fear that I’ll be seen as incapable or unintelligent. But deep down in my gut, I know that isn’t true. I know myself better than anyone else, and when I put my mind to something, I work through whatever I need to get to the other side. For example, whenever I start a new construction management project, the design plans completely overwhelm me. There are just so many details. I’m a detail person, but phew. A 200+ page plan set printed in 4 point font will test anyone’s ability to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. However, once I literally stare at page, follow the index, and ask umpteen questions, it slowly gets better, one chunk at a time.

The struggle with imposter syndrome is what I think others will think of me. And I can’t control that. I know I can’t control that, but it’s difficult to remember in the moment. Imposter syndrome is also rooted in describing what I can’t do. Next time someone asks you to do something at work that you don’t know how to do, notice how you explain your capabilities to them. Are you telling them what you know, or what you don’t know? It’s so subtle, but often times we want to explain what we don’t know, thinking that will somehow convince the other person that we’ll eventually know. Put that in perspective: as well intentioned as it is—we don’t always want to “fake” something we don’t know—practically speaking, actually acting on imposter syndrome just doesn’t work. At the end of the day, no one wants to hear how incompetent we think we are. Especially ourselves.

To combat all this, I came up with three things that I can say to myself, or another person, when I’m caught up in imposter syndrome.

  1. I can learn. These three little words send a big message to someone you’re working with, regardless of their perception or expectations of you on the job. For one, it shows initiative – a job trait that never goes out of style. Self-led learning also demonstrates commitment – you’re investing your own time to add a skill to your repertoire. something new. And it shows confidence – you’re taking the lead on something you know is a priority, and you’re doing so without being asked.
  2. I can ask someone. Above all else, this concept promotes networking. There are some things you just can’t look up on the internet. For my job, there are project-specific details that only the client knows. These can be anything from opinions… how do you think we should handle the Contractor’s request for more money?… to technical specifications… if I want to check what the Contract says about weather delays, where would I find that? And it goes without saying, asking questions is so easy these days. Bonus points for you if you match the style of the person you’re asking: John likes texts, Jane likes emails, Taylor wants a phone call, etc.
  3. I can research. This may sound similar to ” I can learn”, but it’s slightly different. This is meant to be a quick action, like looking up an acronym you don’t know rather than asking the first person you see. It may sound small, but these small moments can be empowering. When you take the act of knowledge into your own hands, within reason, it can give you just the confidence boost you need to tackle a more challenging task in small bites. And on occasion, looking up a quick answer can give you brand new insights when it’s presented in a different context or from a different industry source than you’d normally seek.

The photo came from one of my jobsites when the Contractor proposed using the existing manhole base instead of building a new one. After much deliberation, head scratching, hand sketches, and reviewing the specifications, the Contractor demoed the base, and we paid for the extra cost to install a larger manhole to better fit the existing conditions. Our round peg, square hole situation looked daunting at first but turned out well in the end!

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