How Self-Doubt Can Stall Your Career


By Yvonne Milosevic

Even the most prepared and accomplished professionals experience periods of self-doubt. Often, these feelings work on a subconscious level. But if left unaddressed, they can limit your potential and can even sabotage your career.

Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.

—Suzy Kassem

For some, the root of self-doubt lies in fear of failure. Others, meanwhile, have a fear of success. So, whether you suffer from full-blown impostor syndrome or need a gentle reminder to push past your insecurities, these proven tactics can help you own your achievements.

Advice from the Expert

Ellen Taaffe, assistant professor of leadership at the Kellogg School of Management, has learned how to manage her self-doubt over a long career in brand marketing. In a recent issue of Kellogg Insight, Taaffe offers three tips for how to act decisively, even when you feel out of your league.

Tip 1: Don’t stay in the role of observer. Often, the default response in the face of insecurity is to watch the action from the sidelines. Either you’re afraid of making a mistake or feel unqualified to dive in. Taaffe warns against this tendency to hang back and observe.

“Staying silent is a self-protection mechanism,” she says, “but it’s not the best choice.”

Instead, she suggests launching in as early as possible.  Moments of career transition, such as starting a new job or managing a team for the first time, are ideal times to put this into practice, Taaffe explains. By shifting your perspective from “I don’t know this yet” to “I’m learning here,” you bring fresh ideas to the conversation, she adds.

“The more you chime in,” says Taaffe, “the more comfortable you will feel the next time.”

Tip 2: Take a cue from those around you. Self-doubters tend not to go for a promotion or head up a project unless they feel 100% qualified. Research shows that men are more likely to throw their hat in the ring for a promotion—even if they don’t quite meet the job description criteria. On the other hand, women often want to feel completely capable of doing the job before they apply.


Overcome your self-doubts by looking at how other people at your company have accepted a stretch assignment and succeeded. Stretch assignments get you noticed and put you in the spotlight in the eyes of management.  While there is the potential to fail, more likely, you’ll see a positive impact on your career advancement by taking that risk.

“It’s easy to forget that all of us are hired or promoted due to our potential to learn the role versus already being able to do it at an A+ level,” says Taaffe. “If we hold ourselves to a higher bar than others and as a result do not pursue bigger opportunities, we can get left behind, even in roles where we could have developed and excelled.”

Tip 3: Watch your language. Your word choices and communication style can telegraph your self-doubts to the world.  Common blunders include speaking too fast and using filler words and phrases, such as “you know,” “um,” “uh,” and “like.” Then, there’s the tendency to end a sentence on a higher octave, making it sound like a question rather than a statement.

Taaffe recommends avoiding rhetorical questions or opening qualifiers. Phrases like “Does that make sense?” or “This may be a bad idea but…” signal doubt, she explains, and makes listeners think that the statement is less worthy of consideration.

Instead, Taaffe suggests using “more confident-sounding open-ended questions, such as ‘What are your thoughts?’ or ‘What questions do you have?’.”


Another helpful trick is to record yourself speaking in a mock presentation or answering job interview questions. That way, you can spot and analyze those verbal ticks. You may cringe while reviewing it, but you’ll also learn at once where you need to improve.

Finally, seeking feedback from a supervisor might put an end to a lot of the self-doubt you feel. Hearing the unvarnished truth from a trusted friend or mentor can offer much-needed clarity. Also, Taaffe says, “It can act as encouragement to monitor your own behavior and give you a confidence boost that acts as a kind of permission to jump right in and not hold back.”