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:// the­con­ver­sa­

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