Impostor syndrome — aggressive and constant feelings of self-doubt — can get inflamed in remote work environments. Individual and organizational efforts can help minimize the tribulation.
Have you ever grappled with the feeling that you don’t belong? Do you feel undeserving of the rewards of your work? Known by a variety of monikers like “impostor phenomenon”, “fraud syndrome”, “impostorism,” Impostor Syndrome is a disjunction between internal beliefs and actual accomplishments.
The phrase was coined in 1978 by psychologists Dr. Pauline Clancy Rose and Dr. Suzanne Ament Imes “to designate an internal experience of intellectual phoniness.” People living with impostor syndrome often undermine and undervalue their skills, believing that they’ve made it in life on a fluke, due to luck, or through deceit. In distributed teams employees may amplify their perceived inadequacies or feel as though their purported under-qualifications might be exposed at any time.
While a modicum of self-doubt every now and then can actually be healthy, prolonged or extreme impostor tendencies can often be incapacitating. As more and more organizations pivot to a remote work or hybrid set-up it becomes important to take stock of how impostor syndrome might manifest itself in the new work structures.
Could remote work be the antidote for impostorism? The shift to remote work ushered in a dramatic drop in impostor syndrome according to a 2020 study by one of the UK's leading job boards, Totaljobs, that stated a 57% decrease in rates compared to 2019. Counting this as an unexpected upside of the organizational change, Dr. Terri Simpkin explains, "impostor phenomenon is related to context and so if the context changes so can the experience of impostorism. It’s socially constructed, so change the social circumstances and the experience may change too.” Hanna Anderson, Founder of As We Are, explains this change, “We know that one of the big reasons for impostor syndrome is comparison. In remote working, in some ways, there is less opportunity for such comparison because we're not spending as much time with other people. Instead, we may begin to get to know and appreciate ourselves better – that can be a positive thing.”
Valerie Young, Ed.D., an internationally recognized expert on impostor syndrome and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, corroborates this observation, “Some people who experience impostor feelings find the isolation of working at home to be a relief because they can fly below the radar a bit more and therefore, avoid being – in their mind – found to be lacking, i.e. an impostor. In fact, some people might choose to work [remotely] precisely to avoid scrutiny.”
“Being alone with your thoughts means it’s that much easier to fall into a downward spiral of negative self-talk.”
Physical office cultures offer a number of touchpoints where impostor syndrome can potentially flourish including water cooler talks, impromptu get-togethers, informal workgroups, even shared commutes because of more opportunities to communicate or pick up on comments, feedback, small talk, and the like. These conversations can also carry covert expressions of microaggressions and micro-inequities that contribute to reinforcing and growing impostor tendencies, as pointed by Jennifer Hunt, MD’s book about dealing with self-doubt. Remote working insulates workers against these triggers.
But, remote working can also be a fertile ground for self-doubt to flourish. Being alone with your thoughts means it’s that much easier to fall into a downward spiral of negative self-talk. Hannah Anderson adds this caveat, “The flip side is when you have an overactive imagination and you imagine what others might have achieved in the meantime.” She also shares how the foibles of remote work might impact distributed teams with “impostor feelings” more than the others. Certain quirks of the remote working lifestyle can exacerbate impostor syndrome but can be managed with the right approach.
Being alone with your thoughts means it’s that much easier to fall into a downward spiral of negative self-talk.
Impostor feelings are nurtured by a harsh inner critic. If a person overinterprets strong negative emotions as the truth instead of what they are — fleeting feelings of diffidence — then this self-doubt might exacerbate in remote set-ups. Valerie Young explains, “when you work alone it’s easier to get into your head, to second-guess yourself. You’re not getting the same kind of feedback you might when working with a team or in-person.” In remote, distributed teams, a lot of the work gets done in isolation. The teams work across time zones, often separately. Collaboration may not happen as organically as it does in physical offices. And, as Young explains, working alone makes it easier to “get into your head” and to second guess yourself.
Anderson emphasizes that a support network is crucial. Whereas pre-pandemic, co-workers would get out of a meeting and boost each other’s confidence on a job well done, employees now come off of a Zoom call, sit at home, and wonder if it went well. According to Anderson, this impacts how people feel about themselves at work.
People dealing with impostor syndrome and the erosion of self-confidence are susceptible to the maladaptive practices of perfectionism and procrastination. They are widely known to chase perfection by over-preparing with an incapacitating rigor, leading to procrastination on projects, followed by panic when the deadline approaches.
What can remote workers do to instill positive self-talk and reasonable expectations?
Constant communication and the expectation of immediacy in responses in distributed teams can be counter-productive. Many times those who aren’t on top of their inboxes are working diligently on a task. Nevertheless, this expectation motivates many to feel as though they’re not doing a good job. Organizations can help eliminate impostor feelings arising out of productivity concerns by adopting an asynchronous communication system.
Cognitive distortions are very specific to remote work life where we may be unable to properly perceive a situation or comment. So, it’s important to have informal channels of communication where the organization can get together to celebrate small wins as well as discuss failed attempts that yield vital lessons.
For remote workers, both managers and employees alike, the important takeaway here is the center of wellness and communication, and divorce ourselves from some of the workplace standards that office culture was founded on. It’s a new work world, and we have to be willing to adapt to new approaches. Although we have a ways to go to learn how best to navigate these still uncharted waters, remote work is still a huge win for combatting that mean little voice in our heads that tells us we’re not enough.