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Is Poor Self-Image Hindering Your Career?

  • New research shows self-criticism can hamper a person’s ability at work
  • Experiencing ‘Imposter Phenomenon’ can lead to a person questioning their worth
  • Shame, fear and guilt could all be effects

Do you feel like a fraud at work? Are you ashamed at what you produce or worry that you aren’t good enough at your job? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you could be severely damaging your career prospects.

After two years of COVID lockdowns and isolations, mental health awareness has been pushed to the job of the social agenda. It has become more important than ever that employers not only concern themselves with analysing how productive their cemployees are, but also take a greater interest and responsibility in their mental wellbeing too. And it’s in their interests to do so. After all, as research from ESCP Business School and Trinity Business School has proven – a fulfilled workforce can be key to boosting company performance.

But, how can managers create fulfilment and build confidence when staff become overly critical of themselves?

It’s surprisingly common for people to find fault in their own abilities – whether at work or at home – that nobody else can see. By focusing on them, such people risk digging themselves further into a hole. However, new research from NEOMA Business School reveals that, aside of making people feel worse about themselves, this all-too-common self doubt can cause significant consequences beyond their mental state.

An investigation by NEOMA Business School and Rennes School of Business, published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour, found that many people in the workplace suffer from an experience they refer to as ‘Imposter Phenomenon’ (IP).

The research was conducted using four studies with different methodologies and a total of 648 employees in US and Europe, investigating the effects of IP on performance and career outcomes.

Helena Gonzalez-Gomez, an Associate Professor in the People and Organisations (P&O) department at NEOMA Business School who conducted the research, was very clear in explaining the extreme effects that IP can have on a person’s life. “IP is the feeling that one’s success is due to unrelated factors, rather than one’s competence and qualifications,” she says. “Our findings reveal that in both simulated and recalled work situations, those experiencing IP are likely to feel shame, particularly when they attribute failure to themselves, as well having a negative effect on creativity.”

Although it’s only human for people to blame themselves for minor issues at work, the researchers says it is of the upmost importance that we’re able to let the little things slide, and try to do better next time.

For example, the researchers say, if a footballer is constantly self-demeaning, they are more likely to be worrying about their performance rather than relaxing and playing with complete freedom. The result is a poorer performance next time and a further dose of self-doubt. It is common place for athletes to discuss their displeasure after a loss, and it is indeed important to recognise a need for improvement. However, the researchers say we must also accept those improvement needs rather than lament them.

Back in the workplace, with the fear of being exposed as a fraud, the researchers claim that IP can lead to problems with employee commitment, stress, coping, or job satisfaction. For managers this could be particularly concerning as they risk losing talent and potentially damaging their profitability.

So, what could managers do to tackle the problem?

Gonzalez-Gomez suggests that managers could use appraisal and promotion tools that are more strongly weighted towards externally assessed performance, rather than towards self-assessment. Outside of formal performance reviews, managers should also create a culture that recognises skills, shares successes and does not linger on failures. After all, wasting too much time despairing in defeat stops us looking forward to the future.

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