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Imposter Syndrome—The Invisible Barrier to Returning to the Office

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Imposter Syndrome—The Invisible Barrier to Returning to the Office--

As many companies begin to plan the return of their employees to the office, there are as many feelings about what that transition will look like as there are versions of it.  Whether your office has decided to remain remote completely, introduce a hybrid model ranging from 1-4 days in or out of the office or return to the office 100%, the chances are that your employees are experiencing a multitude of emotions—often several at the same time.

These emotions may range from excitement about working with a team (live!) again; to worry about getting sick or having to deal with childcare and home responsibilities; to concern over whether the employee can be as productive as they were at home; to disappointment that they now have the increased stress and time of a commute added to their schedule.  While many employees may be vocal about the feelings they are experiencing as you process your RTO plan with them, there is probably one group whose concerns you most likely will not hear about.  Transitioning back to the office, in whatever manner you plan, is likely to trigger the anxiety and fear of failure and inadequacy that people with Imposter Syndrome often experience.

While it is natural for all of us to experience self-doubt to a certain extent sometimes, particularly in new or unfamiliar situations, someone who truly has Imposter Syndrome experiences this doubt and fear of being discovered as a fraud more frequently and intensely than those who do not suffer from it.  Imposter Syndrome refers to high achieving people who have difficulty owning or internalizing their successes and accomplishments.  They have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.  Even when they have demonstrated capabilities and competence by achieving success, they still believe they are actually frauds and don’t deserve the success they have achieved.  Their biggest fear is that someone is going to expose them as the imposter they believe themselves to be. 

In its extreme form and if not addressed, Imposter syndrome can lead to anxiety, stress, low self-confidence, depression, and self-doubt.  It causes the person to dwell on extreme failure, mistakes and negative feedback from others and limits trying new things and taking on new challenges.  However, perhaps the cruelest impact of Imposter Syndrome is that it robs the person of the joy of their success.  Certain situations are more likely to trigger these extreme reactions than others.  New situations and those where the person feels they are highly “visible” often can result in Imposter Syndrome rearing its ugly head.  While working in the office may not be entirely new, it will feel new to many people, not just those with Imposter Syndrome and will take some re-acclimating for everyone.  Remote working, even with video platforms, provided a buffer for those who have Imposter Syndrome, helping them to feel less visible.  Interacting with people throughout the day, not just on planned video conferences, will make them feel more exposed, visible and vulnerable.

The good news is, those with Imposter Syndrome are high achievers and great performers, so they will rally and be successful in whatever transition their office is planning.  However, it will come at a cost you may not see.  While you can’t plan your company’s return to work policy around any one (or more) employee’s needs, remain sensitive to the fact that the concerns you hear may not be the only ones your employees are experiencing.  Since it is estimated that about 40% of successful people experience Imposter Syndrome, it is likely that one of your top performers is worried for reasons you may not be aware of.  Offering the same understanding and support for the type of fears and anxiety they are experiencing as you will for all of the other concerns associated with the transition back to the office will help them to continue to be the valuable contributor you know them to be.  And it may help them move closer to overcoming their Imposter Syndrome.