update: my coworker with imposter syndrome actually does suck at her job

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose coworker who said she struggled with imposter syndrome but was actually terrible at her job? Here’s the update.

I took the advice and did a lot better at “short circuiting” conversations that veered toward the emotional. It felt extremely weird at first because I’d start going back to work and looking at my computer screen while she was still in my office staring at me, but eventually she got the point and would leave. It didn’t totally stop, but the conversations ended a lot sooner. The coworker still acts insane, but I got a lot better at redirecting it away from myself.

A few months after the letter, I moved to a different team at the same company and I’m totally loving it – as a result, I don’t have much more interaction with that specific coworker. When I told her I was leaving the team for a new opportunity, she didn’t wish me well. She immediately started talking about how “oh yeah well I got a job offer too but I turned it down!”. Okaaaayyyyy. (I don’t think I believe it, but that’s beside the point). In the weeks after I started my new job, she actually tried asking me to physically come to her location and do some of her work. I didn’t play ball here – she stopped asking pretty fast.

I occasionally see her when I visit my old boss (the commenters on the original post really went after him for allowing her ineptitude & the surrounding circus, but he was an amazing boss for a lot of reasons & I consider him a mentor). When I see her now, she bizarrely starts monologuing about how challenging/important/influential her work is (…it isn’t). It seems like she feels the need to “prove herself” to me now in front of her boss – it’s a strange interaction every time. Then later, she’ll often ping me and complain about how she’s having a hard time with work/personal life/”impostor syndrome”/whatever.

Now that I’m removed from it, I totally see that her game is “pretend to know what she’s doing, and when someone figures out she doesn’t, play the woman card and make people, particularly people in power, feel bad for her” instead of actually working to get better at her job. This trick seems to have had moderate success so far (even on myself – I put up with her nonsense for too long), but I suspect it’ll catch up with her eventually. There’s rumors that her team is going to be disbanded or reorged or something – my old boss admitted that he’s trying to help her build skills so she’s actually employable by someone else after that happens. Ha!

Anyway, glad I’m no longer involved in that hot mess & can just watch from the sidelines. Setting boundaries really helped me be less of a target for her & will help me deal with other difficult coworkers in the future. Thanks for the advice.

{ 89 comments… read them below }

    1. Sloan Kittering

      I did think it’d be great if we could back off that language. But I get that we shouldn’t nitpick a letter writer’s language and give them the benefit of the doubt.

    2. Sara

      I think that’s a reference to the original letter that the LW felt like the co-worker kept trying to get her to agree (as a woman) that its so much harder to be a woman in the office and trying to get LW to support that as the reasoning for it being too hard for her instead of just being bad at her job.

      1. CupcakeCounter

        thanks for the explanation – my eyebrows went WAY up at that line but makes much more sense with the original context. Normally I click the link to reread the original post but there doesn’t seem to be one this time.

      2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

        That was exactly how I read it; but that might be because I had no recollection of the original letter, and had to go look at it first.

      3. Liane

        I just read the original post, where the LW wrote that Coworker “claims that she’s not respected by coworkers because she’s a woman. But no, it’s because her work speaks for itself.” I think that is where LW’s “woman card” in the update is coming from. Maybe not the best phrasing–but I’m sure there’s plenty of those in the comments here, every day.

    3. Lehigh

      It’s pretty clear that the term is just shorthand for the coworker basically going, “Hey, remember how lots of women have imposter syndrome? That’s totally what’s happening here, definitely not incompetence” when it is in fact incompetence.

      1. fposte

        In fact, it’s explicitly stated in the original post that the co-worker claimed people were being hard on her work because she was a woman. I think it really helps to read the original posts if there are questions or concerns about the updates, because often they’re important for context, and the OPs generally write for an audience familiar with those.

        1. selena81

          I just don’t get why this seems to be such a THING for americans: the woman is annoying her coworkers by claiming that she is discriminated when she is actually lazy and incompetent. She *is* abusing the ‘power’ of equal opportunity laws and the self-censorship of people who do not want to se a woman fail.

          And just to be clear, i think ‘the right to be terrible at your job’ is an important part of equal rights, as in: women should in general not be expected to be outperforming men (equal performance: yes, consistently better: no)

          btw: i wonder how much of this is intentional versus a bad habit that kept reinforcing when she did not get pushback?
          Maybe she is coldly calculating how far she can stretch the imposter syndrome excuse.
          Or maybe she genuinely believes that she is no worse at her job than her female colleagues. In that case it may be for her own good to tell her some harsh truths about her performance

    4. Observer

      As others noted, it’s in reference to what the original letter stated:

      It’s routine that she’s unable to perform her task, so someone else does it for her and then she often takes the credit.

      She claims that she’s not respected by coworkers because she’s a woman. But no, it’s because her work speaks for itself.

      1. hayling

        I agree that “woman card” is not the best language, but I would love to know what other people think is a better way to say it?

          1. Canadian Public Servant

            Five is not too many words in my opinion. But I suppose one could drop “everything on”, and then it’s three – one more than potentially inflammatory and very open to dubious interpretation “woman card.”

          2. RUKiddingMe

            Yeah but that could be interpreted (deliberately by a certain demographic) to imply thst institutionalized sexism isn’t real.

        1. pleaset

          Write it out in a couple sentences or two. That term so often used as misogynistic BS that it’s worth avoiding, even in the rare cases where it seems accurate and is concise.

          See also “race card.”

          1. Beth

            I understood perfectly what the OP meant. I find it off putting that we are telling people what words that they are allowed to use. It speaks sadly to the Darwinian direction we are going.

        2. Drax

          Often the use of X Card is because it’s being ‘played’. It’s using the issue as cop out over taking responsibility for yourself.

          So i think in this situation, Woman card is exactly appropriate.

        3. RUKiddingMe

          OP could have just said it the same basic way she did in the original letter.

          “She is still blaming her failures on being discriminated against.” Or some such.

    5. No Good Deed

      If you read the original letter, the OP said that the coworker complained about how hard her job was because she’s a woman in a male-dominated field, when the real issue was that she sucked at her job. So she was literally playing the ‘woman card’ in the sense that ‘this is all happening because I’m a woman, not because I don’t have the skills to do this job’.

    6. JSPA

      The, “we’re all women who have to band together to help each other so we don’t let the side down (so do some of my work for me and tell me I’m great and sympathize about my imposter syndrome even if I actually suck)” card. Like jokers, there are sometimes a couple in the deck.

  1. Dr. Pepper

    Isn’t it amazing how being on the outside of a situation changes your perspective? I’m glad setting and holding boundaries is working out so well. We let people worm their way in and then feel stuck way too often in the name of “not being rude”.

    I think your explanation of her behavior is a bit unkind, but I’m not here to nitpick your language. I’ve worked with people like her who put on a good front, then have endless reasons why they’re inept when you do figure out that it *is* a front. It’s frustrating and defies logic. If they put half as much effort into improving as they put into justifying why they are being useless, everything would be fine.

    1. Cat Fan

      I don’t really get your second paragraph. The coworker seems to go out of her way to contact the letter writer to either brag about herself or complain about herself. That sounds very annoying.

    2. Lucille2

      I agree. OP is a little hard on the coworker, but likely because she invested so much time into helping her and became so drained by it. The boss is really doing this coworker a disservice by protecting her. She seems to lack some self-awareness about her skills, and boss’s inaction is reinforcing that.

      I had a coworker at LastJob who also claimed sexism since our Grandboss was not fond of her. Grandboss wasn’t perfect, but his issue with her had nothing to do with gender. She repeatedly made rookie mistakes. The kind of mistakes that are due to a total lack of attention to detail, not lack of technical skills. Her mistakes would, at least once a month, disrupt our weekly code rolls because someone else had to correct her mistakes. The mistakes were always the same. She knew how to do it right – her work was just sloppy. THIS is why Grandboss didn’t like her. But she always had a direct manager who saw her value and wouldn’t address it. So, she continues to believe she’s awesome, and probably continues to make the same mistakes.

      1. Anna

        Or possibly because the coworker is incompetent and refuses to take a look at how her lack of skills impacts her performance and instead blames it on “imposter syndrome” or that women have it so tough in the industry. I think the OP is appropriately hard on the coworker.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        I don’t think OP is being unkind—OP’s analysis is based on the breadth of their experience with the coworker. The original letter does a great job of laying out many of the foundational issues that inform OP’s analysis in this update. My take from OP’s letter is that the coworker is manipulative, not hapless.

  2. The Tin Man

    Glad you got some distance from the situation! I can’t (okay I actually can) believe she asked you to come to her office just to do her work for her.

    And regarding the bit about her “game”, OP knows the situation best but people are astoundingly good at fooling themselves. I would be more surprised if this is a deliberate system of manipulation and think it is far more likely that the first person she fooled regarding her skills is herself. Stemming from that the talk about Impostor Syndrome and drumming up sympathy comes from a place of truth (for her). Then people (like OP at first) react politely and feed that sympathy and act as proof that she was right all along. There is a good chance she is due for life to correct her misconceptions.

    1. IndoorCat

      “it is far more likely that the first person she fooled regarding her skills is herself” <– I think so too.

      I mean, we can't know what people are thinking, but the Dunning-Kruger effect is pretty real.

      1. Sloan Kittering

        It can also be both sometimes, I swear. The worst people in my life suck, they can’t hardly not realize that they suck, but they do have some thin veil of denial about how badly they suck. I think they are giving a lot of power to their good intentions / feelings, but minimize their actions and the impact of their actions. I suppose having written it out, we’re all guilty of this sometimes. But there’s levels!

        1. JSPA

          It’s a natural outcome of mental avoidance.

          If you avert your gaze when approaching your own zone of suckitude, the zone never shrinks, and you always run into it. Whistling loudly while averting your gaze just draws attention to the continuing problem.

          Given that the other option is not only looking directly at your failings, but integrating your endless bouts of ongoing failure to deal with your failings, it’s not surprising that some people never do take that hard look.

    2. LunaLena

      “Then people (like OP at first) react politely and feed that sympathy and act as proof that she was right all along. There is a good chance she is due for life to correct her misconceptions.”

      Yeah, I kind of wonder if that’s why the coworker keeps trying to “prove” herself to the LW and saying bizarre things like “yeah, I got a job offer too.” She’s trying to get LW to confirm that she really does have skills (and thus bolster up her own beliefs in herself), by having LW respond with something like “oh wow, well, that’s not surprising considering how great you are!”

      1. selena81

        Perhaps the ‘job offer’ was something like a recruiter approaching her on linkedin: nowhere near an actual offer, but a delusional person looking for validation might interpret it as such anyway

        It is possible that the coworkers is calculating and manipulative, but i find it far more likely that she slowly dug herself in in this alternate reality while her well-intended colleagues were too embarrassed and too annoyed to correct her mis-assumptions.

        The whole story is not great for my own imposter syndrome: this situation is kinda my worst nightmare, the idea that i might one day find out that i really *am* performing below-average at my job and the positive feedback was just people-being-polite.
        I feel really bad for coworker if she is headed for that kind of rude awakening

    3. Perpal

      Everyone has Reasons and to a degree it doesn’t matter if the behavior is due to calculated manipulation vs willful ignorance. Maybe it would matter if coworker picked up a psychotherapist for herself, though.
      (we see this debate a lot on captain awkward in regards to abusive or otherwise problematic behavior; it’s interesting to speculate but doesn’t usually impact what those affected by the behavior should do about it)

    4. Marthooh

      Mmmm-hmm. Coworker has spent the past five years improving her leeching skills because that’s what works best for her, and since it’s working, it must be the right thing to do. I mean, obviously.

    5. Où est la bibliothèque?

      I think some of her issues are truly delusion, definitely. But outside of real mental illness, nobody who is basically claiming “everything good in my vicinity is my personal victory, everything bad that I directly cause is not my fault” is going to believe that 100%. Some of this has to be deliberate manipulation.

      1. selena81

        if this is her first ever job than yeah i can believe that she may be naieve enough to think that she caused all that succes and thus is entitled to the spoils, especially if no-one had the nerve to ever tell her ‘what?? it was Greg who did this, stop stealing his credit’

  3. Flash Bristow

    Alison, you might want to add the link to the original article, for people reading from the front page? Just a thought!

    Feel free to not publish this comment (don’t think it counts as a typo or tech issue?)

    1. voyager1

      It is right below the update (at least for me), but yeah she usually puts a HTML link in the update. She probably will get to it and it was just an accident.

  4. Flash Bristow

    I love the “oh I had a job offer too but I turned it down”.

    If there’s any truth in that, I reckon it was a demotion wrapped up as a sideways move “to somewhere that better matches your skills” and she realised she’d be stuffed if she agreed.

    But it’s 50:50 that she’s talking out of her derriere, of course. Thank goodness it’s no longer your problem, OP!

    1. AnotherAlison

      Haha, yes, this. We have had several people leave our group this year, beginning with my manager. He and many others moved on to great new opportunities within the company. Yeah, I don’t buy that it’s a great opportunity when you were a VP and now you report to someone who is not even a VP.

    2. Cheeseburgers

      My NPD mother said something similar to me once, after I told her I got a promotion/raise. “Oh, you know, my old job actually offered me 6 figures to stay, and I turned it down!” I heard my dad in the background, “Well, you should have stayed, then.” 100% a fabrication and one of the many reasons I do not often talk to my mother, ha.

    3. LizB

      She turned down a job offer, and I just totally dumped my super-hot partner (you’ve never met them, they live in Canada) because I ~can’t be tied down~. Definitely.

  5. voyager1

    I vaguely remember this letter originally, but I went back and reread it now. Yep that was a nightmare of a coworker.

  6. Observer

    Setting boundaries really helped me be less of a target for her & will help me deal with other difficult coworkers in the future

    Isn’t it nice when the resolution to one issue is something that will work for you in others?

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      Agreed—this sounds like it was hard for OP to implement their new tactics in the beginning, but by the end, OP was able to integrate that approach in several contexts. I’m so glad it helped OP develop additional skills to deal with difficult coworkers.

  7. epi

    I have had to pull that with coworkers– saying you are busy and then actually going back to work instead of waiting for their permission. It feels so weird at first but it’s very effective. The only person I’ve ever had it not work on was actually sexually harassing me, and then “refused to leave when I told him I was busy” and “hovered behind me after I went back to work” just went in my complaint.

    I have also never met a normal person who is offended if you keep working. They either quickly make it clear that no, really, their thing is quick/urgent/requires your individual input, or they come back later. All continuing to work does it communicate that you’re not just saying you’re busy– today you really are.

  8. BadWolf

    “In the weeks after I started my new job, she actually tried asking me to physically come to her location and do some of her work. ”

    Good on you for not playing that game!

  9. I work on the Hellmouth

    Hooray for boundaries! I very much understand getting sucked into that original pattern, and I’m so glad you were able to start breaking it—and even more glad that you were able to leapfrog on out and are so happy!

    It’s hard to navigate this kind of stuff, sometimes. I think it can be a double whammy for women because not only do we not want to seem/be unsupportive of women in the workforce, we also are so heavily conditioned to not “be a b*tch.” Which can make you feel crazy and/or cause you to tolerate all sorts of crap and expend massive amounts of energy that you don’t really want to. I think you did a great job of recognizing what was happening and I’m so glad Alison’s tips were so successful for you!

    1. Walter White Walker

      Imposter Syndrome is like “Haters” – a perfectly valid concept in context that some people latch onto as a means of avoiding any sort of critical thinking or self-awareness.

        1. Recovering journalist

          Pointing out an offensive term is not nitpicking language. For that to be true, the use of any sexist (which this is) or racist terms would fine as long as the poster had a good intent. I’m surprised you are okay with that.

            1. Recovering journalist

              I definitely will. May I ask, for future reference, does the nitpicking language rule apply to the use of sexist and racist terms?

              1. Turtle Candle

                I think what Alison has said in the past is that it can be brought up once, but not to argue it or repeat it or keep saying “Yes, this!” over and over about it, because it derails the whole page (and as such, it’s a good idea to check the comments to see if it’d been pointed out before saying something). She’s obviously the final word, though.

                1. Recovering journalist

                  I had read the initial comment earlier, and when I did everyone there seemed to be cool with the context explanation. I did believe I was making a different point. But I admit I didn’t go back and look at how big the thread under that initial comment had gotten. Sorry to derail!

                  And thanks for this follow-up. It’s good to know for the future.

              2. Ask a Manager Post author

                In the past I’ve said that it’s fine to call it out — once. There’s no need to do that repeatedly once it’s been flagged because that becomes derailing.

          1. Frozen Ginger

            The issue has already been addressed in the first comment and Alison has asked that we leave it.

            1. Recovering journalist

              Yes, I do realize that now. I didn’t refresh and read from the top when I commented, so I didn’t realize it was verboten. Thanks. :)

    1. Oaktree

      Perhaps it would help you to read the original post, which said:

      She claims that she’s not respected by coworkers because she’s a woman. But no, it’s because her work speaks for itself.

      The LW is not claiming that systemic sexism and misogyny do not exist, but rather that her incompetent coworker would rather blame our society’s misogyny for her lack of respect and progress than admit that she’s bad at her job.

      Hope that helps!

  10. gmg22

    “My old boss admitted that he’s trying to help her build skills so she’s actually employable by someone else after that happens. Ha!”

    Um, that’s what he should be doing as her boss, regardless of whether she is going to stay or leave. OP, you might want to go back and reread those comments from the earlier post that took you so aback before. There is someone else here who maybe hasn’t been doing his job all that well, as much as you admire him (unsurprisingly because you are a high performer, it was easy for him to manage you — but the boss’s job is to manage EVERYONE).

    – How a good manager handles an employee who is in over her head: Sit down, have real talk, put employee on specific PIP with metrics and a clear path of what she needs to do to hit those targets, then support her and check in. If your organization has an EAP so she can talk to a counselor about the personal stuff, encourage that, and then encourage her to compartmentalize so she can focus on her metrics. If she can’t do that, and can’t hit the metrics in the time allotted, come up with glide path for her departure.
    – How your (former) manager apparently handled it: Loosey-goosey, conflict-avoidant and eventually “yeah, maybe we should teach her a few things before she gets booted out of here, LOL.”

    Note that I say this completely understanding that to be the colleague of the person who is in over her head can be maddening — in the fact that it creates extra work for you, if for no other reason. But someone’s getting a big huge pass here.

    1. ChimericalOne

      I’m pretty sure the “ha!” was in reaction to the near-impossibility of getting this person to pass the minimum threshold of “employable.” Possibly plus some satisfaction that an employee who has been gaming the system to avoid taking responsibility will finally face some accountability.

      As far as the boss goes, while it sounds like he wasn’t in the top 5% of all possible bosses, it didn’t sound like he was at all apathetic to his employee gaining the appropriate skills before. He just didn’t have to deal with it directly, because his reports were coaching/mentoring/teaching her themselves — far in excess of what should’ve been needed, but they were. The OP was one of them. Now he’s *got* to be hands-on because it’s been made more obviously “his problem,” and it sounds like he’s dealing with that appropriately.

      (To be fair, some bosses would continue to stick their heads in the sand even at this point, so yeah, he took a little while to grab the reins, but at least he grabbed them now.)

      1. selena81

        My reading of the situation is that he was nervous about being labeled a misogynist, so he let mrs imposter stumble around and annoy her coworkers FOR 5 YEARS instead of grabbing the bull by the horns and setting her straight about people’s opinion about her work. The kind of cowardly manager who hopes that someone will ‘draw their own conclusions’ (find another job that is) by just letting them fail time after time after time.
        His avoidance may have kept her employed, but it also robbed her of a chance for timely self-improvement: imo he cannot lay claim to ‘i gave her a fair chance to prove herself so her firing is not on me’

        Her talking about imposter syndrome all the time may have been a calculating person establishing an alibi.
        Or it may be a deeply confused person trying to explain why everyone is ‘acting weird’ around her.

  11. Susana

    Makes me think of that movie, Spanglish, in which Glenn Close is (rightly) disappointed in her daughter’s (Tea Leoni) bad behavior and says, “dear – sometimes your poor self esteem is just good sense.”

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