The fear of not being good enough

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The fear of not being good enough is fairly pervasive in most first-world workplaces, I’d argue. (Hell, it’s fairly pervasive in life as a whole.) There is legitimate research that most people’s №1 fear about work is being seen as incompetent. That’s essentially the same thing as a fear of not being good enough.

This isn’t necessarily surprising to me — and probably shouldn’t be to you either. We have a lot of outdated notions around work, and many of those are tied to employee performance. Managers tend not to focus on employee strengths, instead focusing on concepts such as “the performance improvement plan” or ideas like “He/she is a bad employee.” In short, much of management is about getting worried about hitting targets (“a fear of not being good enough”) and, rather than rationally evaluating your team, immediately putting people in boxes as “good” or “bad” because you’re scared of what your boss is about to say to you. It’s a fun little cycle. It repeats endlessly in many jobs, which might explain some of our issues with turnover and retention.

Now that we have a little bit of the landscape here, let’s talk more about this fear of not being good enough.

What factors limit your career?

Let’s be a little blunt upfront: most people don’t understand what really determines their earning potential. Combine that with “lack of clarity around how salaries are set,” and organizations have a lot of power over individuals when we get to money discussions. That’s a problem. It’s one of the reasons (just one) that “pay transparency” is still an issue.

That all was about money, though. Let’s talk more broadly. What factors might limit a person’s career? According to this post from VitalSmarts, which is admittedly a few years old, the factors would be:

  • Unreliability
  • “That’s not my job”
  • Procrastination
  • Resistance to change
  • Negative attitude

I’d agree with all five of these. I’ve probably been guilty of all five too, and while I do fine for myself, I ain’t no world-builder and I got canned from my last job. So clearly my career growth was limited by some of these factors. First-person context, baby!

But I think there’s something else we need to mention/consider here.

What would that be?

Well, first, let’s talk about how hierarchy intersects with those five bullets. An executive can do all five of those things — and get rewarded. Honestly, oftentimes “resistance to change” is a direct synonym for “corporate executives.” I hope this helps you understand that hierarchy has many limitations, and leaves behind more people than it benefits. Helps explain, in part, the rise of the “gig economy.”

The big bullet missing from that list, though, is a fear of not being good enough. We live in an increasingly unclear business environment where negative thoughts are commonplace. People are nervous. (See: Brexit, Trump, etc.) Automation looms. Fears abound. Is tech saving us, or killing us? Heady questions. And at most places, ironically, the department tasked with “developing people” is also the one tasked with forcing them out the door as quickly as possible. Seems less than desirable, right?

Consider this scenario

You have a fear of not being good enough. But you mostly like the job/role/company. You want to develop in this role. So you go to your manager — but he/she has no time for you. Then you go to HR — they have no real plan. Everywhere you turn, someone is telling you how “busy” or “slammed” they are. It’s hard to find a mentor. Networking events are largely business card-slingers and offer-upsellers.

How do you find yourself in this ecosystem? Where do you turn to develop your career? How can you overcome this fear of not being good enough?

To me, that’s the essential question of the modern workforce. We gussy it up in lots of bullshit, such as terms like “management development” (mostly garbage) or “leadership pipelines” (buzzword city). In reality, the deal is much simpler — but we need to think it through.

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We’ve got people. These people need to hit targets for us to grow the business. But these people also have concerns about their life and their ability to make money and have a family. So we need to grow the business and also grow the people. It’s an ecosystem. A 1–2 punch. A rising tide shall lift all boats. Right?

Unfortunately, not right.

What do you mean?

Most companies are about two things: (1) would be pleasing key stakeholders and (2) would be proving as much growth as possible. After those two things, very little matters to the highest-ranking people. In such a context, the development of real employee potential — countering “a fear of not being good enough” — has no place. Most execs would sneer, “That’s a HR thing,” which is code for “I don’t care about that; show me the revenue numbers.”

So basically, at potentially the most uncertain time in business history (VUCA!), we have almost no plan for how to deal with those who feel scared and massively affected by everything around them. Instead, we hope they just put their nose to the grindstone and hit their targets. If they do that, after all, we’ll get rich — and they can go find new jobs, ‘eff em. See how this model only works for a few people anymore?

So how do you deal with a fear of not being good enough?

Therapy. Blame your mom.

Just kidding. The easiest way is to invest in yourself. Take classes. Learn to code. Grow on your own, even if your company doesn’t care. That’s Step 1. Unless you choose to kill yourself (don’t do that), you always have yourself around. You may not always have your company. So focus on №1 first.

Second: “zero fucks given” approach. That doesn’t mean do a bad job. It means that there’s always bullshit at every job/office, so tune out as much bullshit as possible and focus on yourself and your team. Do as well as you can. And when the time is there, get out.

Third: self-affirmation. Tell yourself you are good enough. It sounds like an Al Franken SNL sketch, but it works. I have incredibly low self-esteem and I do this. It works.

Fourth: realize it’s subjective. Who cares what some ass clown middle manager thinks of you? Years of research has shown that person’s role is a joke as is. The next manager you have might love and value you. Human evaluations of other humans are subjective and rooted in tons of confirmation bias. Just let it roll off. Easier said than done, but eh.

Fifth: Cover your own ass. You know your managers are doing it. Maybe you should as well.

What else would you add on a fear of not being good enough at work?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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