We spend so much of our time oriented toward work and so the workplace becomes a very important space that affects our sense of self. When you struggle with Impostor Syndrome, it’s worth taking some time to audit some of the environmental experiences that may be contributing to your reactive response and vulnerability to feeling like a fraud or incompetence.
It’s often said that the #1 contributor to employees leaving jobs is difficulty with a manager. According to 2019 research study, 57% of people quit jobs because of issues with a manager. In addition, when there are cultural factors in the workplace set up in ways that prioritize the advancement of the business over valuing the development of the humans that make up their workforce, it can set up the perfect conditions for intense experiences of Impostor Syndrome.
The types of workplace cultures that can trigger Impostor Syndrome are ones that do the following:
First, when your performance objectives and goals are constantly shifting, it never gives you the comfort of knowing that you are reaching your targets, and can leave you with this constant sense of having to prove yourself, which is very triggering for people experiencing impostor syndrome
Work cultures that severely punish mistakes and where perfectionism is the goal are rife for Impostor Syndrome because they cause you to feel like you will never be good enough, and therefore must constantly work harder to show that you belong.
Organizations that support stars and scapegoats where there is little room for growth or changing people’s perceptions can leave you feeling very vulnerable because even the stars on the inside are insecure because they know their status is tenuous and they could lose it if they make a visible error. The title of star is usually very fragile and easy to fall from.
Work cultures where there are no boundaries between your personal and professional life, in which you are on call 24 hours a day, there is little or no privacy at work, and overworking is rewarded, can sustain impostor syndrome feelings because when you have Impostor Syndrome, it is very difficult to set boundaries, to care for yourself and make yourself a priority.
These Impostor triggering dynamics in these work environments are not accidental. They often drive unhealthy levels of productivity in their employees and are not interested in the impact and the destruction that they are causing to the people in their organizations. Their main goal is their bottom line.
These cultures also sometimes supported by managers that are toxic and ignite Impostor Syndrome. Some of the common types of bosses that trigger Impostor Syndrome are:
Withholding Bosses – These are bosses that restrict feedback to rare occasions or whose feedback is very restrained or muted. They often expect unrealistically perfect performance in order to give positive feedback.
When working with these types of bosses, it’s helpful to:
- Not seek positive and constructive feedback from them for validation or even a fair evaluation of your performance
- Construct a coalition of mentors and colleagues (internally and externally) that can offer career guidance
- Work on being able to ascertain from positive feedback from others your possibilities for advancement or whether this boss will be a block to your advancement
- Learn to appreciate your own contributions and successes and have a plan for your own future
- Don’t rely on them to guide or support your career in a useful way
Prove It To Me Bosses – These types of bosses require that you prove yourself constantly to them. They are bosses that constantly change the goal posts, make you feel like you are only as good as your last project and sometimes also use other employees to threaten your position or play them against you.
To handle them strategically, you may want to consider:
- Setting standards and goals for yourself
- Celebrating every one of your wins
- Coalition building in the organization so you don’t feel alone
- Not getting caught up in splitting behavior with other employees (see them as victims of this behavior, too)
Erratic Bosses – These bosses are unpredictable and unstable in the way that they show up at work and can be difficult to understand as a result of this. It can be very unstable in workplaces with these types of bosses because you never know what mood they’ll show up in and their mood dictates the entire mood of the workplace.
To support yourself with an Erratic Boss, it’s important to:
- Find a way to stabilize yourself before entering the workplace or working directly with them (e.g., meditation, breathing)
- Set boundaries — find ways to shut your door, not respond to every whim, and seem at the beck and call of their erratic behavior
- Build coalitions in the workplace to be strategic and ground yourself regarding what you are experiencing
- Don’t let yourself get caught in the emotional waves they set in motion; stay away from them as much as is possible
Insecure bosses – This type of boss micromanages and nitpicks at your work. Typically, they are not comfortable with their position and very concerned about how your performance will reflect on them. They struggle to take up their role in comfortable ways.
To care for yourself with this type of boss, you may want to:
- Work on not letting their insecurities become your own
- Find ways to assert your independence on projects
- Be careful to examine their feedback for projections of their insecurity on your work
- Be aware of ways in which you are propping them up and potentially losing opportunities for yourself to shine
Perfectionistic bosses – This is the type of boss that expects perfection in everything you do and nothing less. Bosses like this want everything to be perfect and just so. They can be very particular about the way things are done, believe there is only one way to do things (“the right way”) and exacting in their feedback.
To be strategic with this type of boss, you may want to reassert and focus on the ideas of a growth mindset and:
- Know that everyone makes mistakes
- Acknowledge that in failure and mistakes, we learn and grow
- It’s impossible to do tasks exactly the way they do
- It’s ok and healthy to find your own voice in the work
When you are in situation with a work culture like the ones described and managers who reinforce them, taking care of yourself and being strategic are key to your survival and managing your Impostor Syndrome.
What do you do or what have you done when you have been in one of these situations to manage your Impostor Syndrome and care for yourself?
If you want to learn more, check out my book on Impostor Syndrome, called “Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt and Succeed in Life.”