Has Remote Work Created an Imposter Syndrome Problem?

Article by 
Cascade Team
  —  Published 
October 24, 2022
June 7, 2023

An Overview of Imposter Syndrome

The transition towards more widespread remote work has been coming for a while now, but it’s almost certainly the case that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a significant accelerator of this shift.

For the first time in the modern era, companies of all types are becoming more open to running distributed teams that don’t meet in a single location, but who collaborate using a range of technological tools that can bring them together virtually.

This has been a big boom for productivity and employee morale, as people have had more control over their working environment and can fit their tasks more seamlessly into their day-to-day life.

It has been a win for flexibility and it’s hard to see how things could ever go back to the way they were before. However, this is not to say that remote work does not come with its challenges.

As with any significant habitual shift, we have to learn to adapt to this new normal and deal with all the psychological and procedural changes that it brings. One of the most common obstacles that remote workers are facing is an increase in what psychologists call ‘imposter syndrome’.

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What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a term that was coined a few decades ago but has only really become part of modern parlance over the last couple of years. It refers to when someone has persistent doubt about what they’re doing, what they’re working on, or the role that they are fulfilling. They feel like they are a fraud, and their lack of worthiness is going to be exposed at any moment.

This is typically an internal phenomenon because, for the most part, everyone else is happy with the work that they are performing. But for some reason, someone with imposter syndrome feels like they don’t deserve to be where they are. If this persists for a while, it can lead to self-sabotaging, psychological stress, and a general lack of self-belief.

From an individual perspective, this can be extremely damaging and increase stress levels significantly – leading to poor mental health outcomes. Once it has a grip on you, it’s a difficult piece of self-talk to dislodge. And from a company perspective, it has an impact on productivity and personal development for your employees.

You want your team to feel like they are moving forward in their careers and that they are deserving of the progress that you’re facilitating. If this doesn’t happen, your organization is not robust from a cultural point of view.

The scary thing is that it’s much more common than we like to admit. Its very nature makes us think that we’re the only one who is going through it, but that’s simply not the case. And the recent shift towards remote work has made this problem even more prevalent across industries of all types.

The Impact of Remote Work

Imposter syndrome exists in many different forms, but the challenges of remote work seem to have been a unique contributor to this festering self-doubt.

Here are some of the reasons why this has been the case:

  • Social Isolation- When you’re working on your own, without your team surrounding you, it gives you lots of extra time to be alone with your thoughts. As such, the dangerous self-talk that leads to imposter syndrome comes to the front of the mind.

    It’s easy to question yourself when you are alone because there is no other evidence to show that you actually are a valuable member of the team. It can feel like you’re the odd one out and you’re the only one faking it. This increases stress levels significantly and can lead to a misaligned perception of productivity.

    The tragic irony is that the whole team can be feeling like that because they’re all working remotely, and no one would even know that they aren’t the only one.
  • Lack of in-person feedback- When you’re working in a team in one space, there are direct and indirect feedback mechanisms that help to assure you that your work is valued and that you’re making a contribution.

    It could be something as small as a genuine ‘thank you’ from a colleague, or the camaraderie felt around the meeting table as you plan the next week’s priorities. All of this in-person feedback is validation that your place is valued and that you’re doing a good job.

    As we’ve transitioned to remote work, this hasn’t been replicated very well. We have limited means of providing genuine feedback and an email/instant message just doesn’t give us the same dopamine hit that we were used to receiving. As such, it’s easy to see those virtual pieces of feedback as shallow imitations that vivify the imposter syndrome that you’re feeling.

  • Mistaken tone- One of the most difficult things about working remotely is reading the tone of messages to determine the meaning behind the words. In person, we have a range of social cues and body language that we use to identify exactly what someone is meaning by what they’re saying.

    Research from Albert Mehrabian suggests that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice, and only 7% is the actual words themselves. But over email or even over video conferencing, we aren’t able to pick up the same amount of information.

    As a result, it is increasingly difficult to pick up on tone – leaving us to anticipate the worst if that’s how our mind is wired. Your colleague might send you a terse email in response to your hard-fought piece of work and you could easily interpret that as a sign that you’re not accomplishing what you should be.

    But on the other side, it could be that your colleague was just rushing through their emails as quickly as possible and was more than happy with your work. We mistake tone all the time over virtual communication and this can really feed our imposter syndrome if we’re not careful.

  • Managerial adaptation- We can’t forget that managers are also facing a huge transition in their lives, and they have to adapt their management style to this new world of remote work. Some are doing it better than others. And if you have a manager who is not adapting successfully, it’s likely that their working style can fuel the fires of imposter syndrome within their direct reports.

    Whether they have gone the direction of micro-management in an attempt to ensure productivity, or they have become somewhat absent because of the virtual distance, this can lead to self-doubt in the minds of those they work with.

    Remote work requires new ways of work in order to give employees the validation they need, and most companies (and managers) are still learning about how to do that most effectively.

Those are just a few reasons why remote work seems to have created an imposter syndrome epidemic across the world. It’s clear that we have to get a handle on this and build new habits, routines, and mental fortitude to turn this ship around.

This requires a paradigm shift in how we interact with one another, how we use our technology, and how leaders cultivate company culture. With some smart optimizations with both technology and psychology – we can minimize the imposter syndrome in our organizations and make significant leaps in productivity as a result.

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How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

As organizations and as individuals, there are things we can do in a remote work setting to help fight against imposter syndrome and cultivate the self-worth and self-belief that we need to feel comfortable in our roles.

Here are a few examples of principles and procedures that can help in this regard:

  • Role Crystallization- Leaders and managers can do a lot of good by revisiting the roles that each of their employees play and detailing the exact expectations with those relevant people. It’s natural for this to shift over time and so it may have been a while since you’ve actually adjusted each role to suit the person currently fulfilling it.

    If you use this inflection point as a prompt for some role crystallization, you’ll help to give employees the comfort of knowing exactly why they’re valuable and what the expectations are of them. This needs to be done with some nuance and emotional intelligence, but it’s an exercise that can settle the nerves and self-doubt in this new phase.

  • Overcommunicate- In a remote work setting, you should be taking every opportunity you can to communicate with your team because this helps to fight against the social isolation that can dampen spirits when you’re working in a distributed fashion. As a manager, see if you can set up some regular catch-ups where team members can discuss how things are going in a safe and positive environment.

    This communication helps to allay fears and self-doubt because everyone can talk about what’s troubling them and see how others can help. Don’t be scared to be vulnerable here. The idea is to be honest and upfront for the benefit of all. Research from McKinsey confirms this:

Organizational Employee Communication Chart
  • Goal Alignment- Leaders should be spending a lot of time and effort ensuring that the mission of the company is articulated clearly and that the objectives that everyone is working towards are front of mind. Take the time to interact with every team member to explain not only what their role in this project is, but why they’re valuable. What is unique about their skills, temperament, and experience that makes them the right fit for this task.

    By aligning goals across the organization and having everyone pull in the same direction – it can greatly diminish the feelings of imposter syndrome because everyone understands how their piece is contributing to the greater mission.

  • Validation- Managers should be hyper-aware of the nature of imposter syndrome and should be pushing against it by validating their employees as much as they can. This can take a number of forms including detailed positive feedback when a piece of work is submitted, an unplanned check-in call, more regular performance management reviews, and so much more.

    Validating the efforts of your team whilst they’re working on their own is incredibly valuable. And be sure to magnify the positive tone here – be as explicit as possible. You don’t want any of that positive reinforcement to be lost over the message.

  • Share Mistakes- Another really powerful thing you can do is proactively share the mistakes that are made in a constructive way. When everyone is working remotely it can feel like you’re the only one who makes mistakes, but if you’re made aware of mistakes made elsewhere in the organization – it can help to correct that assumption.

    Transparency and genuine accountability in this respect are a huge help when it comes to combatting imposter syndrome and it shows everyone that we are all just human, trying to figure it out as we go along.

  • Team Building- While it might sound cliché, this is a crucial component of building a team that believes in themselves and each other. And just because you aren’t physically in the same space, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be connecting in a social way.

    By focusing attention on team dynamics and organizational social events outside of work, you can build that sense of community that people might be missing as they work remotely which helps to validate and celebrate the efforts of each team member. It’s simple but incredibly effective.

So, there you have it. Those are just a few of the principles, ideas, and concepts that companies can utilize to battle the rise of imposter syndrome. This is not something you can eliminate overnight, but with enough effort – you can make significant strides in the right direction.

It doesn’t require the moving of mountains to make it work, it just requires some strategic thinking, execution, and a healthy dose of compassion to make the difference.

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