Research suggests that about 70percent of people will experience an illogical sense of being a phoney at work at some point in their careers.
JOHANNESBURG - Research suggests that about 70 percent of people will experience an illogical sense of being a phoney at work at some point in their careers.

It's called the impostor phenomenon (also known, erroneously, as a syndrome). These impostor feelings typically manifest as a fear of failure, fear of success, a sometimes obsessive need for perfection, and an inability to accept praise and achievement.

The phenomenon is also characterised by a genuine belief that at some point you, as the “impostor”, are going to be found out for being a fake in your role.

The phenomenon has been researched for more than 40 years and recent research into women working in sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem), suggests that there is a much higher incidence of it in women in these non-traditional roles.

Despite being something that affects people at an individual level, the relationship between toxic workplaces and well-being is well established. It seems that the impostor phenomenon breeds from a mix of genuine personal doubt over work abilities and the collective experience of a toxic work culture.

Simply put, our modern workplaces are feeding a sense of inadequacy in the face of a track record of achievement and success of individuals. The “impostor’s” internal drive for perfection and their constant expectation of external criticism pushes them to underestimate their abilities, while striving to exhaustion for advancement to avoid perceived failure and exposure to criticism.

Toxic workplaces are often characterised by an environment that diminishes or manages out the humanity of the place and its people, as well as promoting competition. A focus on profit, process and minimising resources is pronounced. Bullying is normalised and embedded in managerial and colleague behaviour, while leadership is inert and ineffectual against it.

The unhealthy marriage between the impostor phenomenon and toxic work cultures is sustained at an individual level by the basic human need for safety and belonging. This interferes with “rational” decision-making and supersedes the entrepreneurialism and risk-taking that would challenge the status quo.

While technology continues to transform the nature of work, organisations are lagging behind in how they manage people. Corporate performance management practices are often little more than thinly disguised carrot-and-stick approaches.

A rampant competitiveness in certain workplaces often provides a breeding ground for anxiety, depression and self-degradation.

This breeds perfectionism, which also fuels people's need to micromanage. Dysfunctional competition gets prioritised over collaboration.

The imbalance this produces between effort and rewards exacerbates the feeling of inadequacy and creates a negative feedback loop, which leads to mental exhaustion. And if both the person and the organisation implicitly fail to recognise the toxic combination of impostor tendencies and an unhealthy work culture, they both passively endorse this social contract.

Amina Aitsi-Selmi is a honorary clinical senior lecturer at University College London. Theresa Simpkin is a visiting fellow at Anglia Ruskin University.

This article was originally published in The Conversation, http://theconversation.com/

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