by Svenja Weber and Gianpiero Petriglieri
Raymond closed down. Sandra snapped. They both had solid records and promising career prospects, and yet they felt that something was not working. Their bosses, colleagues, friends could tell too, but they were equally puzzled. How could someone so talented get so lost, or lose it, in seemingly trivial discussions, for no obvious reason?
The answer is deceptively simple and widespread: insecurity at work. The nagging worry that we are not quite as smart, informed, or competent as we ought to be, or as others might think. The fear that we are not good enough, or simply not enough. The second thoughts about our ideas, observations, and even about our feelings. The constant concern about being judged.
Feelings of insecurity leave us overdependent on external factors — admiration, praise, promotions. But even then, the feeling of achievement is generally temporary. Soon after, we turn inward, digging inside ourselves for a vein of confidence that remains elusive.
Insecurity makes it difficult for us to make our voices heard, leaves us unable to dissent, and makes us tentative in our work relationships. It leaves us dissatisfied, undermines collaboration, and renders our teams less creative and efficient. If there is one enemy of authenticity and innovation, insecurity is it. No wonder we try so hard to get rid of it.
In our work as teachers, consultants, and coaches, we have met hundreds of Raymonds and Sandras over the past two decades. Like them, we have felt confused and frustrated by insecurity from time to time; we know what it’s like to want to grow stronger, to want to care less about others’ judgment of our work. And we have come to realize that perhaps the ways we understand insecurity and try to deal with it might be part of the problem.
Just as people turn inward when they struggle with insecurity in the workplace, so do those who write about it. Insecurity at work is commonly seen as a personal foible, associated with imposter syndrome. Sometimes it’s linked with ambition and overwork — as in the case of people labeled insecure overachievers. These views cast insecurity as both a flaw and a drive, the result of a deeply rooted belief that one is a fraud, that one’s achievements are a product of circumstances rather than competence.
Such beliefs make us cautious and resentful in relationships. If they really knew me, they would not like me, the imposter’s story goes, but I will show them. Hence insecurity becomes a driver for chronic efforts to prove oneself — I’m only as good as my last success. But every time, the praise that follows achievement is quickly hollowed out by self-doubt.
While these descriptions do feel true to the experience of insecurity, they also frame it as a personal problem — a product of our history and ambitions, talents and sensitivities. Shipping people off to a development workshop or to a coach to “work on” their insecurity does the same thing. This approach suits the insecure, who often quietly agree that something is wrong with them. And while coaching can be of great help, the usual advice — set better boundaries, take some distance — puts too much emphasis on insecurity as an individual failing. In fact, insecurity is a social issue with psychological consequences, not a psychological issue with social consequences. In the workplace, the roots of insecurity are often found around us, not within us.
Insecure people are made, not born. Take the insecure overachiever, a type of person that many firms intentionally recruit and cultivate. If the only results that matter are tomorrow’s, and if you are only as valuable as clients and colleagues judge you to be, then being an insecure overachiever is not a pathology; it is a necessity. Becoming one is an adaptation to a cultural ideal — one that may be personally costly and, for some, professionally harmful.
The research on women and minorities in professional settings, for example, has made it clear that insecurity is much more of a social issue than a psychological one. While women are constitutionally just as confident as men, a cocktail of conflicting messages and personal feedback tinged with bias — be more assertive but less confrontational, be authentic but less emotional — puts them in circumstances that would make anyone second guess themselves.
“Insecure” behavior such as speaking less in meetings, or shying away from confrontation, in those circumstances, is not the expression of a sensitive psyche. It is both a response to subtle threats and a way of fitting in, or, more precisely, of acquiescing to the status of misfit.
Treating insecurity as a personal issue, then, leaves unquestioned the expectation that creates insecurity in the first place. It’s the insecure person’s job to toughen up, not the organization’s job to loosen up. No wonder the insecure work hard and feel alone.
The aspiration, for those who suffer from insecurity and those who try to help, is a certain detachment — an autonomy that frees us from dependence on others’ approval. That is all well and good until you realize that, throughout life, we need loving others in order to be healthy, independent people. It is precisely when we lack solid, supportive relationships that we turn inward and become insecure. Belonging is as fundamental a human need as autonomy.
We all have some experience of relationships in which we have freedom, can speak our minds, can be vulnerable, can be seen, all without much fear of jeopardizing the relationship itself. We might even have experience of relationships that make us feel truer to ourselves than we could be alone. What if those relationships were not an exception at work, but the norm?
You guessed the answer: Insecurity would be a momentary state, not a chronic condition. It might afflict all of us at times, but it would not define some of us for good. Bringing our full selves to work, our strengths and vulnerabilities, ideas and questions, would be neither an achievement nor a privilege. It would be a gift that we receive and give in turn.
Seen this way, insecurity is neither a flaw nor a drive. It is a byproduct of a workplace culture in which individualism is rampant, relationships are instrumental, and bias goes unquestioned. The answer to it cannot be simply to set better boundaries. To accept and overcome insecurity, we rather need to stop caring too much about each other and start to care more for each other, and for the place we work in.