Most people starting as a newly qualified social worker, or a newly promoted social work manager, will know the feeling of imposter syndrome. 70% of people experience this at some point in their life, and 25– 30% of high achievers are reported to suffer from it. It was first identified in the research in the 1970s amongst high achieving women, and recent research indicates that it also higher in black women. Imposter syndrome of course, also affects men. It is not however a diagnosable mental illness or disease. It reflects how we have been conditioned to see ourselves.
Imposter syndrome is commonly experienced as a chronic lack of confidence in one’s abilities and the secret dread that “I am a fraud, and sooner of later, everyone is going to know!” It is often fed by a good dose of perfectionism that results in huge pressure to perform and work harder to compensate. Often people don’t feel that they deserve their success and have a hard time recognising or valuing their own abilities.
But the truth is that most people in social work start off feeling that way, and they “fake it until they make it!”
Managing imposter syndrome
If you suffer from imposter syndrome here are some things to hold on to while you “make it”:
1) Recognise the signs and that it is a normal part of learning. You are not the only one.
2) Let go of perfectionism. There is no such thing as perfect social work or management. Be realistic and reasonable about your own self expectations.
3) Recognise that not everything you feel is true. Feeling anxious and incompetent doesn’t mean you are.
4) Be kind to yourself. Don’t let your critical self talk undermined your confidence. You are on a learning curve and its okay.
5) Talk about it with your someone like your practice manager, your own manager or a mentor. If there are technical aspects of your job that you don’t understand, ask for training and help with it.
6) Keep putting yourself forward for new opportunities, embrace the new.
The Dunning Kruger effect:
However, some people don’t suffer from imposter syndrome, they suffer from the opposite effect – the “Dunning Kruger” effect. This is when people with low competence vastly overestimate their own ability compared to other people.
Dunning and Kruger discovered that the 25% least competent people in a task often rate themselves in the top 70% . Those in the top 25% also under estimate their competence. What this means is that people with low competence and knowledge often have a dangerously over confident sense of their own ability and this can lead to some fairly catastrophic outcomes.
Liz Truss is potentially a very public example of this principle in action. Having been warned by people with greater experience and knowledge, that her policies would be economically catastrophic for the country, and make her own party unelectable, Liz Truss brushed this off as “project fear”. 45 days later she resigned after having crashed the economy, lost 65 billion Bank of England funds, back tracked on her policies, and fell behind over 30 points in the polls to the opposition.
Dunning Kruger in social work
The Ofsted grade descriptors for leadership and management include the phrase “they know their strengths and weaknesses well and both respond to and are resilient to new challenges.” In “inadequate” local authorities Ofsted inspectors will often say that the organisation “does not know itself ”. In these cases, senior managers vastly over estimate the quality and impact of their services. The reverse is also true – that good and outstanding leadership teams “knows themselves well” and take action necessary to address problems.
Individuals who are under the Dunning Kruger effect often hold onto “cognitive bias.” They often don’t take criticism well, reject contrary evidence and show a low interest in service or self improvement. They do not show healthy self doubt and don’t question whether their beliefs or convictions are based on evidence.
In social work it is critical to be self reflective, to look at issues from every angle and question the evidence base for our own assumptions. We need to avoid cognitive bias and assumption based thinking in the way we work with families. Professional humility and willingness to question ourselves is part of a healthy learning culture.