Two Reasons People Feel Insecure at Work and How Leaders Can Help

I had a fascinating conversation with executive coach and author Lisa McLeod during her recent LinkedIn Live presentation, Why You Feel Insecure at Work (and How to Fix It). To a certain extent, we define ourselves by our work, and we spend a lot of time thinking of ourselves as someone in a particular job or role, so it’s hardly surprising that there are many reasons a person could feel insecure at work! 

First of all, if you tend toward feeling anxious or unsure in your personal life, you probably also feel uncomfortable at work—after all, workplace protocols include deliberately judging your performance. And if you’re not confident about your skills or haven’t yet had pertinent experiences, these things can, in turn, become reasons to worry about your performance.

But as McLeod and I discussed, there are a couple of things that could make you feel insecure even if you know your stuff and you’re not generally an insecure person.

Is It Okay to Be Myself?

If you’re different in some way from most people you work with—whether it’s because of gender, race, upbringing, education levels, neuro or economic status, political party, or any of the other myriad ways we sort and identify ourselves—it’s normal to wonder, “Is it safe for me to acknowledge my identity here? What about my preferences? Will I be accepted? Will I be treated fairly and equitably? And can I not only participate in the formal opportunities that are offered to everyone here but also be treated like I matter as an individual?” 

Some physical and other characteristics can be observed easily, which means that we have little choice about certain aspects of our identity being known by others. Still, we all have to decide how much of ourselves to share and which aspects to mask in the various environments we navigate, and many people don’t want to share all their personal details with their work colleagues—or perhaps only with a close few.

Perhaps a better way to frame your thinking about your place at work is: “Will I be treated as well as others here who are not like me? And is that general level of treatment reasonable and satisfactory?” Beyond that, you can assess how much you want to share at work, and how expressive or natural you want to be, by gauging how much others share and how they behave. Some workplaces are very open and personal, others less so, in the same way that families vary in their social norms. 

Leaders can help convey the nature of the work culture by emphasizing fair and supportive treatment as well as by being explicit about the value of the work itself, their expectations for how people perform, and what the outcomes of employees’ efforts should be. In addition, leaders can model openness about their own personal lives, hopes, and fears to help employees feel more welcome and accepted.

Does My Boss Like Me?

Interaction with your direct supervisor can be uncomfortable. Sometimes that’s because of the inherent power imbalance. Other times it’s because a boss is insecure and doesn’t really know how to behave. But it’s both common and distressing to worry that your boss doesn’t like you. Worse, if your boss is unclear about expectations and doesn’t explain how they make judgments or what they really care about, it can become harder to trust them or feel like you’re on the same team. Employees’ livelihoods are often fully dependent on their boss’s satisfaction, so when employees can’t tell what their bosses want, it becomes incredibly stressful to go to work.

But working remotely or in a hybrid situation doesn’t always relieve an employee’s stress because many organizations and leaders aren’t great at communicating or managing culture in person and are even worse remotely. As bosses engage less, it’s harder for employees to form a connection with them, which is essential to helping employees feel like they belong and matter. When employees don’t have a strong sense of what’s important to the boss—or what the boss really wants from them—then of course it’s more likely that they’ll assume their boss doesn’t like them.

But leaders can avoid this challenge by getting to know their employees as individuals, whether they’re new hires or long-time incumbents. They can also create consistent messaging about goals and requirements as well as fair and reasonable expectations for behavior. This combination will help create an understanding that everyone—both leaders and employees—is in this together. Any form of “winning” or success becomes what leaders and all employees do together in the marketplace—and individuals are never pitted against each other internally. But leaders also need to do the day-to-day decision-making and messaging that makes such philosophies come to life. By ensuring that everyone works collaboratively, leaders demonstrate the acceptability and belonging of everyone who is working together.

And if your boss is unclear or uncommunicative, ask about what’s important to them and express your enthusiasm for what they’re trying to accomplish. Knowing that you’re in sync with what your boss wants, and that you’re working together for shared goals, will help you feel more connected, confident, and secure at work.

Onward and upward—

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