Woman in white tank top standing on gray rock formation. Photo by  Elia Pellegrini  on  Scopio

One anxiety I think a lot of driven, young people feel is the result of working very hard and finally making it to a point that you’d wanted to be, only to start doubting yourself as to your right to be there. It’s called impostor syndrome – where you feel that you are faking in some way, that somehow someone will find out that you don’t deserve the success, the title, the props, whatever. It makes perfect sense to feel this way if you have struggled for years to prove to others that you DO deserve these things – in some way you’ve internalized all the naysayers and it’s really hard to get that out of your head.

It’s common when someone feels impostor syndrome to then downplay their accomplishments, become extremely self-conscious, and seek out excessive training or work long hours to justify their position. I have been guilty of basically all of these things. Reading other blogs, it looks like the best way to get over impostor syndrome is to just get over it. So you got that? Great. Ha ha. The solution for impostor syndrome is, of course, a bit of work, since you’re undoing some junk in your mind it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Anyway I’m less interested in the idea of impostor syndrome as I am in the prevalence I see with other young people, especially women in social work, and why that is. I believe that there is something wrong with our work culture that causes women to feel like they don’t deserve the promotion unless they killed themselves to get there, and that is seriously messed up. One of the reasons I wanted to get an MBA was being so sick of social work culture and the ways that people in it get told that they have to sacrifice their entire life to do a good job when the complete opposite is true.

The more I do in business, the more I see that work culture problems are everywhere. I know of social workers who have been guilted or called names by their supervisors when they refused to take work home with them or obsess about clients’ welfare after work hours. This doesn’t help anyone – an over-stressed social worker who is too tired or anxious is not going to be able to be present in the moment with their client and really do good work, and that poor quality of work is going to in turn impact the boss.

This kind of thinking – that helpers need to suffer – is a by-product of this impostor syndrome problem, and the cycle goes like this:

  1. Person begins career
  2. Person obtains necessary skills to advance in career
  3. Person is held back from advancement in career until they make unreasonable sacrifices of their personal lives and well being, and eventually internalizes this as normal, believing they are the one who needs to improve in order to “deserve” the advancement opportunity.
  4. Person is granted advancement, but is by this point embittered and frustrated, has severe doubts about their abilities, and has not been shown a good example through this process of how to lead others
  5. Advancement comes with more work but less support, frustration and self-doubt increases to the point of despair
  6. Two choices – Despair outward or inward.
    1. Despair turned inward is depression, looks like martyrdom. This person won’t speak up for self or staff so there are no opportunities for them to learn or advance.
    2. Despair turned outward is anger, which looks like passive or overt aggression. This person is envious, micromanaging, and discounts staff’s abilities so they actively thwart staff’s chances at advancement.
  7. Staff working under this person repeat the cycle.

I think we in social work have an especially pressing problem seeing that we are in the business of helping others. If a carpenter has a horrible boss making him feel small, frustrated, and bitter, they can pound extra hard on some nails. If a social worker’s manager makes them feel small, frustrated, and bitter, they transfer those feelings to their clients.

The solution for this sounds easy, but like anything real, it’s not. It starts with people from the very tippy top of organizations, being real and self-actualized and humble and kind. That type of person seems so impossibly rare in regular life, which is probably why organizations that are really, truly successful is also incredibly rare. But I do know it’s possible.

I really like Steve Sinek’s materials and I’ve been reading Start with Why, which is his book on successful business practices. The main concept is so simple – you start with the reason you want to build a business, and a compelling reason will bring people there. My hope is that more people are starting to do this – I see lots of peers starting their own businesses and saying no to the traditional work structures that dehumanize people and create bullies out of leaders. My reason for starting this business was to be able to build something based on the concept that people are capable, that their intrinsic desires are to do good and to be productive, and that if you just let them be they will create beautiful things.

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