While your Impostor Syndrome can be triggered by a high profile assignment or a new accomplishment, particular work environments can serve as the breeding ground for Impostor Syndrome, and these workplaces can feel very difficult to leave. They are the Venus Flytraps of Impostor Syndrome work environments, ones which ensnare those with Impostor Syndrome.

Sometimes, it’s not the entire workplace culture, but a boss who draws you in to feeling a heightened sense of fraudulence. These managers can be usually one of two types: bosses who are withholding and very rarely praise performance because they feel like there are few instances were people deserve praise; and those who are prone to vast shifts in your evaluation, and go from high praise to vocal, and sometimes, public devaluation and humiliation. The first type of manager is often a perfectionist and feels that the high performers will rise to the top by expecting nothing less than the best at all times from his/her employees. The second type of manager is manipulative and unpredictable, and seeks control, at any moment, of his/her employees.

In either case, the value on external feedback for those with Impostor Syndrome makes both of these types of managers incredibly dangerous, because they nurture the need for overwork, perfectionism and serve as powerful reinforcers of the Impostor Cycle.

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Staying around these types of managers never lets you internalize positive feedback, or accomplishments, because that does not serve the manager’s style or agenda. The more insecure you are about your skills, accomplishments and ability to please them, the more control they have over your career, sense of professional self, ability to change, and your future.

Identifying these types of managers becomes critical in avoiding the potential trap of their poisonous management style. Here are some things to look out for:

When you are interviewing:

  • S/he can be withholding; doesn’t give you much and watching for your reaction and your desire for their approval.
  • When s/he talks about her team, you can see that s/he is the central hub of power and control and her team members are not that autonomous.
  • The team has stars, is competitive and not collaborative
  • There is limited opportunity for advancement and everyone is striving for the same minimal roles
  • The team looks beat down, exhausted

I always preach this reality: Remember, the interview process is dyadic and you should be doing a lot of analysis on your own about whether there is fit for you in these organizations and with these managers. Often, because of the lack of confidence of those with Impostor Syndrome and their difficulty in cataloging their accomplishments, the job search process can be very daunting. You can engage the process with the perspective that you should be lucky to get an opportunity and that you don’t have choices. This is something that should also be proactively combated so that you are engaging in a full search (i.e., interviewing multiple places, you have a network that is advocating on your behalf) which will enables you to have choices.

There are also types of organizational cultures that trigger Impostor Syndrome. These types of cultures can be even more difficult than dealing with a manager alone, who is reinforcing the Impostor Syndrome. This difficulty stems from the fact that everyone is potentially drinking the KoolAid, and pushing up against the cultural norms can be difficult, if not impossible, because the culture is engineered to develop a workforce that produces on its behalf without regard for its employees.

Some of the expectations that you will find in these organizational cultures are:

  • Constant availability; no ability to set boundaries; no value on nurturing your personal life
  • Weak performance review process, which allows for moving the goal posts and making it very difficult to have evidence for a promotion or get viable, useful feedback to constructively improve
  • Environments that don’t tolerate mistakes; where mistakes are highlighted to make a negative example of the person as a warning to others
  • The environment supports stars and scapegoats and there is little room for growth or changing people’s perceptions. However, 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.
  • Cultures that support unhealthy competition and don’t know how to make team experiences productive and valuable for all

You may be in one of these cultures already and so it may be easier to assess because you are actively experiencing these things. When you are interviewing, it can be more difficult to determine these things. Do your due diligence. Check sites like Glassdoor for previous employees’ evaluations of the organization. Do informational interviews with people on the inside, and ask them about the culture or specific aspects of their experience (e.g., if you are interviewing someone who would be a lateral, you could ask: when you work on teams, what’s your experience when things go poorly? What is the process that the team goes through to evaluate the situation?)

Working on Impostor Syndrome does require examining and intervening on your own behavior and thoughts. In addition, it also can be helpful to understand when a manager or organization is benefitting from your Impostor Syndrome, and reinforcing it to leverage your insecurities for their benefit.

If you missed my newsletter on the origins of Impostor Syndrome and want a little background on it, check it out here.

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