After a few months of working remotely Garima Gulati Bhutani noticed a change in her behaviour. Feeling overwhelmed and under-confident, she was unable to complete her daily to-do list. “The overnight shift in working conditions took a toll on me,” says Bhutani, associate director (human resources and communications), Client Associates, a Gurugram-based private wealth management and multi-family office. “My confidence was shaken.”
Her friends were going through something similar, which prompted Bhutani to seek help. “I attended a few mental health counselling sessions online, identified my fears and worked on them.” she says. “Identifying it early as imposter syndrome helped me handle the situation.” While Bhutani was quick to find out what was bothering her, not everyone is able to do so.
Also read: What HR teams learnt from the covid crisis
Experts believe the pandemic has resulted in people overworking either to save their jobs or because they feel they aren’t doing enough, leading to a rise in workers second-guessing their skills and potential. Such persistent feelings create a ground for imposter syndrome, a condition where achievers doubt their performance, confidence takes a hit and they attribute their success to external factors such as luck.
According to the annual Anatomy Of Work Index 2021 released recently by Asana, a San Francisco-based work management platform, around 62% people experienced imposter syndrome last year. The number was at 80% for those who started a new job in 2020.
“You think you don’t deserve your success,” says Mumbai-based leadership and life coach Milind Jadhav, who has noticed a recent spike in people reaching out to him with anxiety related to dwindling work performance. Since the pandemic hit, he has started conducting five sessions a day; earlier he did about three.
Close to 80% of his clients want to discuss their lack of risk-taking appetite and confidence crisis. “Sometimes I tell my clients they are languishing in the pandemic and feeling victimised. They just have to stop pretending,” he says.
The term imposter syndrome was coined in 1978, especially for women achievers in high-performing sectors, who felt like imposters even when there was validation of it being otherwise.
In fact, a study published a decade ago in the International Journal Of Behavioral Sciences, said around 70% of people experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their lives.
With the present rise in workplace competition, celebration of the hustle culture and dip in company budgets, it’s not exactly surprising to learn that more people, across gender and industries, are complaining of a feeling of “not being enough”.
Delhi’s Meenu Aggarwal takes comfort in the knowledge that this is a universal phenomenon. She first experienced workplace-induced stress and self-doubt a few months into the pandemic.
“Even though I was delivering all my projects on time, I was always worried about how my co-workers were judging my work. I felt like an imposter,” she recalls. Four months ago, she asked for a transfer and has started afresh with a new team and in a new city.
What is it about the pandemic that has made people feel like imposters?
People are more likely to be susceptible to imposter syndrome when they face a big change in their lives or are suddenly pulled out from their comfort zone, shows research.
“The pandemic forced us into a period of uncertainty,” says Karan Mehta, co-founder and chief technology officer, Kissht, a consumer credit startup, who noticed the condition among his employees since covid-19 started.
“Unexpected scenarios like a nationwide lockdown and health emergency compounded fears. Such disruptions hugely impacted our emotional and mental wellbeing. It added to anxiety at work, leading to fear of ‘not doing enough’ even when overworking,” he adds.
Of course, the pandemic has changed many rules of the game —it has led to setbacks, losses and grief.
According to S. Ramnarayan, clinical professor (organizational behaviour) at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, during the past year more people have recognised that they are fallible and can make mistakes.
“Making mistakes is not a bad thing. Acknowledging them is partly humility,” he says. “But in offices it is degenerated, and this leads to low self-confidence, which is more an expression of fear. Rather than ignoring this internal anxiety, a better approach is to embrace these emotions.”
Cause and effect
Besides self-doubt, the classic symptoms of the condition include the need to be a perfectionist to deliver ordinary work and basing self-worth on one’s own perceptions. In the wake of the pandemic, getting outside validation became rare, and the person’s sense of worth declined. It made being good not good enough.
“For one, it is the lack of verbal affirmations,” says S.V. Nathan, partner and chief talent officer, Deloitte India. He explains how Zoom meetings lack the physical affirmations of a conference room, like a nod, smile, and other such non-verbal cues.
“In a Zoom call it’s difficult to track non-verbal cues and so some people start second-guessing their efforts at workplace,” he says. One of the common symptoms is being afraid to ask questions. During team calls, Nathan ensures everyone pitches in the conversation.
Bhutani concurs: “We as social beings need to be surrounded by others for comfort and reassurance. Lack of it becomes concerning for me.”
There’s no single cause attached to feeling like a fraud. Some experts associate the feeling with childhood personality and societal expectations.
“In most cases, it’s a deeply embedded childhood feeling where you have been told by someone that you aren’t good enough. The pandemic has just brought that deep-rooted conditioning to the fore,” explains Jadhav. He recalls how the country head of a foreign bank confessed to him feeling being inadequate and not worthy of his designation. “After my sessions with him, we realised how it was a feeling that goes back several decades. Despite his professional success, he hadn’t shaken off that feeling.”
Help is here
Imposter syndrome is an experience that can be managed easily with affirmations. Several high achievers like Sheryl Sandberg, Michelle Obama and Maya Angelou have publicly acknowledged having gone through this phase at some point in their lives.
Offices are also devising ways to tackle it. “We introduced an initiative wherein team leaders would give monthly feedback to the employees. A structured process was put in place to make employees realise their value to the workplace,” says Bhawna Kirpal Mital, head (HR), Hero Future Energies, a renewable energy firm. The initiative has started bearing results, the firm claims, as teams have become proactive about raising issues of workload or inability to deliver.
At Kissht, Mehta has tried to incorporate a hierarchy-free team culture. “This allows employees to have candid conversations without feeling threatened or ridiculed,” he says.
Bhutani, meanwhile, has developed a nine-marker model for herself and any team member who has been hit by imposter syndrome. It includes steps like talking to a mentor and tracking your progress.
Prof. Ramnarayan agrees: “The idea would be to encourage learning by doing, in the form of small experiments. Managers should create psychological safety for people to express their ideas and try out new initiatives. When efforts succeed, it gets you into a virtuous cycle.”
Also read: Do we even want to return to the office?