Imposter Phenomena and Experience Levels in Social Work: An Initial Investigation

Imposter Phenomena and Experience Levels in Social Work: An Initial Investigation Abstract Imposter phenomena (IP) is when an individual experiences unwarranted feelings of inadequacy in relation to their own abilities. Often linked to self-efficacy, individuals who experience IP doubt their own skills and attribute their successes to luck as opposed to themselves. Whilst this has been studied in relation to a number of fields, IP has not been considered in relation to social work. This article investigates the prevalence of IP amongst a small sample of currently practising social workers (fifty-nine) and utilises a survey approach to assess levels of IP. This data were explored in relation to levels of experience. From the sample, it appears that IP is more frequently occurring amongst social workers than would be expected and IP experiences are less frequent with increased levels of experience. This article considers the impact of IP upon practitioners and makes suggestions for further work. Imposter phenomena, social work, professional practice, resilience Introduction Imposter phenomena (IP), also known as imposter syndrome, was first identified by Clance and Imes (1978) and is characterised as persistent unwarranted feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence relating to one’s ability/performance (Clance, 1985b; Clance and Imes, 1978). The experience of IP may persist despite an individual achieving their goals and objectively being perceived as successful. Since its conception, IP has been discussed in relation to work performance (Bechtoldt, 2015), mental health (McGregor et al., 2008), gender (Clance and Imes, 1978) and institutional support (McDowell et al., 2015). A majority of the work investigating IP has taken place in an academic setting, focusing on feelings of imposterism in academics or students (Holmes et al., 1993; Kolligian and Sternberg, 1991; French et al., 2008); however, there has not been a focus on the impact of IP within social work beyond anecdotal accounts (Kuliesis, 2016). As social work has a strong emphasis on professional judgement in practice (Kirkman and Melrose, 2014) and requires complex evaluations to be made in ‘high-stakes’ situations (Paul, 2004), knowing whether IP is present in social workers and how this presents are useful. As social work has a strong and lasting impact upon individuals’ lives, improving understanding of social work professionals’ identities, decision-making processes and factors that impact upon these things is important, hence the research question of this work: does IP present in social workers and is this related to experience? IP tends to occur in high achievers and causes them to dismiss, discount or overlook their successes. The main characteristic of IP is an inability to internalise success (Clance, 1985b). Those who experience IP often did very well in school and have high expectations of themselves. However, their successes are often attributed to external sources, such as luck, lenient examiners/teachers/managers or other circumstances. Alternatively, success may be diminished by individuals suggesting that the task was not that difficult or that anyone would be able to achieve the same thing (Clance, 1985b). These dismissals of success mean that individuals who experience IP never correctly attribute their own achievements, which may contribute to a self-image which reflects inexperience and inability. Due to this lack of self-affirmation, IP-experiencing individuals do not approach tasks with confidence, but instead with anxiety and trepidation (Peteet et al., 2015). When someone who approaches tasks in this way enters the workplace or a profession, their attribution errors seem to have a greater emotional impact, leading to IP. This may be because school, university and other training experiences are preparatory; however, upon starting work, there is an explicit expectation that an individual is a ‘professional’ and holds the associated skills and knowledge. When someone who has not internally attributed their successes experiences this process, the identity of a ‘professional’ seems fraudulent, as they do not perceive themselves to hold the requisite skills. IP may cause individuals to doubt their ability in the workplace and question their worth as professionals. However, feelings of fraudulence alone do not suggest IP. There may be many situations where these feelings are valid due to lack of experience, skills or knowledge; the perceived fraudulence experienced in IP is unwarranted, which is what makes this phenomenon of interest. It seems that IP is linked to, but separate from, an individual’s self-efficacy and self-esteem. Previous descriptions of IP suggest that individuals have experienced positive outcomes, or success in their endeavours, but have not internalised these successes in order to build self-efficacy regarding those skills and abilities (McDowell et al., 2015; Vergauwe et al., 2014). The impact of this is that those experiencing IP approach each situation with the same anxieties and fears that a beginner would have and, as they progress or improve through effort or practice, these feelings do not diminish. There then exists a contrast between an individual’s feelings and their situation, which leads to the feelings of fraudulence (McGregor et al., 2008). Clance considered what factors may lead to an individual experiencing imposter feelings, and developed a possible explanation based upon family dynamics and childhood experiences (Clance, 1985b). Clance’s experience as a psychotherapist clearly informed this reasoning. Clance found that families of those who experience IP had high expectations, particularly regarding intelligence and what success looks like. When combined with a lack of direct or explicit praise, this creates a dynamic where the child wishes to succeed and receive praise, but has to meet an atypical and unusually high standard of success, with little reward. Clance suggested that IP experiencers also may not have ‘fitted in’ with their families, or entered a different field than was expected or valued by their family, creating a drive to prove not only that they are successful, but that their work is valid. Clance’s explanation as to why someone may develop IP has generally been accepted, with no other explanations being proposed. IP has been linked to depression, low self-esteem and low self-efficacy (McGregor et al., 2008; Vergauwe et al., 2014). However, this work has largely been investigatory, finding correlations between these phenomena rather than causal links. It is not clear at present whether IP is a cause or result of these factors, or whether they are simply commonly co-occurring. It has been noted that understanding the relationship between IP and depression may help mental health professionals in working with individuals who exhibit signs of both IP and depression (Vergauwe et al., 2014). Additionally, this suggests that similar thought processes could occur in both IP and depression, with negative cognitive triads being a particular example (McGregor et al., 2008). This could be used in adapting cognitive approaches to relieving depression to support individuals who experience IP. IP has commonly been investigated in relation to education or the workplace (Lane, 2015; Vergauwe et al., 2014). This is largely due to IP being focused on belief in skills and ability to achieve or complete goals. In addition to impacting upon an individual’s mental health, IP can also impact upon an individual’s approach to their professional work. Clance (1985) highlighted two approaches to work and decision making that were common in IP-experiencing individuals. The first of these is over-preparing. Some individuals who experienced IP felt that they needed to do more than others would consider necessary to meet the same standard. The result of this is that individuals experiencing IP may do well at a particular task or project due to the amount of work and preparation they have done; however, this is at a high cost in terms of energy, resources and time. If over-preparation becomes a continual approach, there is a greater risk of burnout or stress (Clance, 1985b). The second approach identified by Clance (1985a) is procrastination. Some individuals experiencing IP feel that tasks facing them are insurmountable and so delay starting, as they do not believe they can finish. This is more obviously problematic than over-preparing; however, some of the outcomes are the same. IP-experiencing individuals who procrastinate still have to complete their work and so may do so in a rush, which can cause stress. In social work practice, neither over-preparing nor procrastinating are tenable long-term strategies. Practitioners must be able to make decisions quickly, and sometimes without having access to all the desired information (Spratt, 2000). So the over-preparation and procrastination strategies will not be able to be carried out. This raises the question of whether IP is present amongst social workers or not, as the current understanding of IP suggests that individuals who experience IP at a moderate to frequent level would be unlikely to be able to cope with the demands of the social work role. IP is linked to lower self-efficacy and lower levels of perceived organisational support (Clance, 1985b; McDowell et al., 2015). Lower levels of self-belief may lead to the questioning of one’s ability that allows imposter-like feelings to occur (Clance, 1985b). Similarly, a lack of support from the organisation can cause individuals to question why they are not supported, potentially leading to the conclusion that they are not good enough (McDowell et al., 2015). In this situation, the propensity for low self-esteem and perceived low organisational support become linked, and impact upon each other, which may contribute to IP. This places an emphasis on the role of organisational support for all individuals, especially those experiencing IP. IP is also related to work–family conflict, but this relationship is mediated by organisational support. If the organisation is seen as supportive, resources are drained less/replenished more, allowing IP to have a lesser impact on other areas of individuals’ lives. However, research looking at the IP and work–family conflict has focused on a variety of professionals across one organisation. Looking within one profession across a variety of organisations may highlight the role of perceived organisational support more clearly. All of the factors that relate to IP could potentially have negative impacts on a professional role, such as burnout, stress or increased time off (Lane, 2015). Understanding how IP affects professionals is necessary to develop strategies to overcome or reduce these problems. This is particularly relevant in social work, as the profession has a high turnover of staff, is perceived as being high-stress and professionals are potentially more likely to experience burnout than in other roles (Lizano and Mor Barak, 2015; Kuliesis, 2016; Blome and Steib, 2014). This can impact negatively upon service users, as there is a need for continuity and consistency in service to ensure that service users maintain trusting relationships with social workers and they receive the most appropriate support (The College of Social Work, 2012). Social workers experiencing IP may have more difficulty in maintaining this consistency, and so understanding how it impacts this profession is important. IP occurs amongst a variety of professionals and managers in practice. The presence of IP affects managers’ decisions regarding task delegation. Managers with high IP scores are more likely to delegate to individuals that they perceive as also having IP. This is not perceived as rational, as individuals with greater self-confidence are more likely to succeed. However, other research suggests that individuals with IP do not perform worse than their peers, but experience more angst or feelings of stress in the process (Bechtoldt, 2015). Whilst managers delegating tasks to those they perceive as similar to them is not necessarily harmful, when this bias is based upon the perception of IP, it implies that those experiencing IP may be more likely to receive higher workloads from IP-experiencing managers. As individuals with IP may have reduced cognitive resources due to the feelings of imposterism, they may feel less able to complete a higher work-load, or subsequently have increased work–family conflicts. There are links between IP and symptoms of depression (McGregor et al., 2008). Causality is not clear in this relationship, but it should be noted that professionals with IP may be more likely to experience depression, which could impact upon their work (and those they work with). This relationship may also suggest some approaches for treating or addressing IP, through techniques found to be useful in relieving symptoms of depression, such as low self-esteem or errors in attribution. However, when considering this in relation to professional roles, care must be taken to ensure that it is not implied that mental health difficulties such as depression will always negatively impact upon an individual’s performance at work. As social work is an emotionally taxing role (D’Cruz et al., 2005), ensuring that professionals maintain their resilience and ability to be objective whilst providing care and support is important. As depression is linked to lower levels of energy or reduced conservation of emotional, cognitive and physical resources, ensuring that professionals experiencing IP do not also have these effects is important in ensuring their ability to maintain their standard of work as well as their own mental health. IP tendencies can be predicted based on the extent to which an individual participates in self-handicapping behaviours and tends towards shame affects in social interactions. The practical applications of this are somewhat limited, but may suggest that addressing shame could reduce feelings of IP. There is the implication that imposters do actually feel capable, but feel shame about presenting this, and so self-handicap/engage in imposterism. Currently, there has not been any work into the prevalence and presentation of IP amongst social workers. As social work is a highly stressful profession, with a strong importance upon decision making and high levels of staff turnover (Department for Education, 2016; Spratt, 2000; Taylor, 2013), it is possible that IP impacts upon social workers. It is of interest to understand how IP impacts upon social workers specifically because their profession has a high level of responsibility and requires individuals to have confidence in the decisions they make. As IP is linked to reduced confidence, lower self-efficacy and procrastination (Clance, 1985b; Clance and Imes, 1978), understanding how social workers manage these factors in relation to their practice will be useful and potentially allow support strategies for professionals to be developed. If social workers experiencing IP carry out the approaches of procrastination or over-preparation outlined by Clance and Imes (1978), this will have a detrimental impact upon practice and service users. Social work often requires decisions to be made and acted upon quickly (Pereira et al., 2015), meaning that procrastination or over-preparation may not be practically possible. This raises the question of how IP-experiencing individuals manage in social work practice. It may be that individuals with frequent or severe IP experiences do not stay within the profession or that they find other strategies to manage their IP feelings. As this is unclear at present, there is a need for exploratory work to understand the prevalence and impact of IP amongst social workers, which is the aim of the current study. Method A quantitative survey approach was utilised to answer the research question. The survey needed to assess the level of IP experienced by participants and additional questions would be required to assess participants’ level of experience in social work practice. The Clance IP Scale (CIPS) (Clance, 1985a) was used within this work. Whilst there are other instruments that have been created to measure IP, such as the Harvey I-P scale, CIPS has relatedly been found to be reliable, valid and appropriate (Chrisman et al., 1995; Holmes et al., 1993; French et al., 2008). Additionally, as the CIPS was created by Clance, it is more likely to measure IP as it is defined, rather than other interpretations. The CIPS comprises twenty five-point-response Likert-scale statements, some examples of which are: I can give the impression that I’m more confident than I really am. I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am. When I’ve succeeded at something and received recognition for my accomplishments, I have doubts that I can keep repeating that success.The questions can be grouped into subscales which measure different aspects of IP. These include attributing success to luck, discounting one’s own efforts and feeling like a fraud or fake. All of these subscales have been found to have internal reliability and consistency (Chrisman et al., 1995), particularly when used within theory-driven work (Holmes et al., 1993). The CIPS has also been found to be consistent with the results of other psychometric measures of similar or related phenomena such as depression, anxiety and low self-efficacy (French et al., 2008). Following gaining the appropriate permissions, the CIPS was distributed online, with some additional questions relating to the level of experience participants had in social work, whether they held a management position and for how long they had been qualified. These questions were included to allow for greater understanding of how IP occurs amongst social work professionals and to help inform further work into the role of IP in career progression (currently ongoing). There has been some debate about the relationship between IP and gender (Chrisman et al., 1995). Clance and Imes (1978) initially considered IP to predominantly occur in women, but subsequent studies have found IP occurring in men also at a similar level (Topping and Kimmel, 1985). Currently, there is not a consensus regarding IP and gender. As this research focuses on social work, understanding the links between IP and profession was more of a concern than the impact of gender. However, social work is also a highly gendered profession and, as with many of the ‘caring professions’, is stereotyped as ‘woman’s work’, which may impact upon the sample. As this work is an initial investigation, establishing the links between IP and social work is of more relevance, and later work may specifically consider gender dynamics. Additionally, not asking participants their gender improves anonymity and thus it was deemed justifiable ethically to not ask respondents for information that was not necessary. Further work may comment directly upon this, as there are gender dynamics within the profession of social work (Walsh, 2010). Participation was completely anonymous and confidential; the only identifying information asked of participants was contact details if they wished to be included in voluntary follow-up work, which was kept separate from questionnaire scores, so as to maintain anonymity. Through using an online survey service, the data were secured in line with both the Data Protection Act and ethical standards. The research was approved by the De Montfort University ethics committee prior to data collection commencing. Sample and participation An invitation to participate was sent to 120 local authority social care teams (both adults and children) across England. Contact was also made through university links with chief social workers within local authorities to encourage participation. Additional advertisements for the research were posted on Twitter, including the key term ‘social workers’ to reach appropriate audiences. Despite this potentially large audience, sixty-six responses were received to the survey, of which fifty-nine were compete and admissible for data analysis. This response rate is disappointingly low, which unfortunately is a common feature of utilising online surveys. This could potentially have been improved by approaching more teams in person to discuss the research and answer questions, or through utilising the support of professional groups such as the British Association of Social Workers more explicitly. Ensuring a representative sample is reached and delivering a good response rate is a continuing issue in survey research which is difficult to resolve, but should be acknowledged by researchers. Responses where more than a quarter of questions were not answered were removed, as an accurate score for IP tendencies could not be established. Where scores were missing, they were counted as zero. This means that levels of IP may be underestimated by the survey; however, this was deemed as appropriate, as it did not risk misapplying the label of ‘imposter’. The small sample was deemed as acceptable, as follow-up interviews will be carried out with some participants to collect more detailed data. However, as there has been no other investigation of IP amongst social workers to date, the prevalence information is novel and could inform other future research, and so warrants discussion despite being small in scale. The survey was limited to qualified and currently practising social workers. This was chosen because the demands asked of qualified social workers are different to those of unqualified practitioners, and so may have a different impact upon those experiencing IP. Additionally, as qualified practitioners are member of a professional body, their judgement and decision-making abilities are held to a higher standard, which may also impact upon IP, or how this presents in social work practice. The choice to limit the sample to currently practising individuals was because those who previously practised would be viewing the experience in hindsight, and with the benefit of reflection. This may impact upon how they perceive events and thus what their IP experience is in relation to those events. Additionally, the choice of currently practising professional meant that follow-up work could be carried out regarding experiential aspects of IP in social work practice. Local authority social workers were chosen as the sample as the research specifically is interested in the prevalence of IP amongst qualified and currently practising social workers. Local authority social work teams provide a large pool of potential participants who meet these criteria, and there are existing channels of accessibility to these individuals. As participation in the survey was voluntary, self-selection processes were used beyond these criteria. It was made clear in the participant information that experience or knowledge of IP was not a requirement of participation; as the work was investigating prevalence, participation of those who do not identify with IP is also necessary to ensure validity of the sample. The process of data collection highlights some issues with the use of e-mail to contact social work teams and the need for pre-existing relationships with individuals within social work teams to gain access. The e-mail addresses used to contact teams were collected from local authority websites and contact pages. A significant number of these addresses when contacted (approximately 10 per cent) were either incorrect, no longer available or undeliverable. This highlights a problem regarding digital accessibility and the currency of contact information. Where there were existing contacts within local authorities, the invitation information was given directly to social workers, which is likely to elicit a better response than using generic contact e-mail addresses. However, there is awareness that the individuals passing on the invitation were managers or individuals with positions of seniority over front line staff. This may have created a sense of obligation to participate as opposed to being a truly voluntary choice. These issues do not have a clear resolution; however, if social work research is to develop, practitioners need to be more aware of research opportunities, or have accessible channels to participate in research that do not rely on existing connections or organisational contacts. Findings Possible scores on the CIPS range from 20 to 100. The scores from each Likert-scale response are totalled to give an overall score which is indicative if the level of IP feelings an individual experiences. Scores are ranked in terms of IP experience, as shown in Table 1. Table 1. CIPS scoring Score  IP experience  40 or less  None or infrequent IP experiences  41–60  Moderate IP experiences  61–80  Frequent IP experiences  81 or above  Intense IP experiences  Score  IP experience  40 or less  None or infrequent IP experiences  41–60  Moderate IP experiences  61–80  Frequent IP experiences  81 or above  Intense IP experiences  Table 1. CIPS scoring Score  IP experience  40 or less  None or infrequent IP experiences  41–60  Moderate IP experiences  61–80  Frequent IP experiences  81 or above  Intense IP experiences  Score  IP experience  40 or less  None or infrequent IP experiences  41–60  Moderate IP experiences  61–80  Frequent IP experiences  81 or above  Intense IP experiences  Of the fifty-nine responses analysed, the overall scores ranged from 29 to 100. It is unusual for a score of 100, so this response may be considered as an outlier. However, in further work, this individual may be contacted to gain a better understanding of their experience of IP. The mean score was 59.242, which is representative of moderate IP feelings. The scores were normally distributed, with the majority of respondents experiencing IP at a moderate to frequent level. Frequencies for each level of IP experience can be seen in Table 2. The data were normally distributed (F = 1.323, p = 0.264), allowing parametric testing and Pearson’s correlations to be carried out. Table 2. IP level frequencies IP level  Frequency  Percentage  Infrequent  10  16.9  Moderate  22  37.3  Frequent  20  33.9  Intense  7  11.9  Total  59  100.0  IP level  Frequency  Percentage  Infrequent  10  16.9  Moderate  22  37.3  Frequent  20  33.9  Intense  7  11.9  Total  59  100.0  Table 2. IP level frequencies IP level  Frequency  Percentage  Infrequent  10  16.9  Moderate  22  37.3  Frequent  20  33.9  Intense  7  11.9  Total  59  100.0  IP level  Frequency  Percentage  Infrequent  10  16.9  Moderate  22  37.3  Frequent  20  33.9  Intense  7  11.9  Total  59  100.0  To understand whether IP occurs amongst social workers at a level that is different from other populations, a one-sample t-test was carried out. As there is no consensus about the mean level of IP amongst the general population to act as a contrast, a theoretical model was deemed sufficient. The test comparison value was set at 50, as this would be the mean in a perfectly normally distributed population. The t-test showed a significant difference in the sample CIPS scores and the theoretical model (p < 0.001), suggesting that IP is experienced more frequently amongst the social workers sampled than would be expected. This is also reflected in the frequencies given in Table 2. Recognising that this difference is significant is helpful in developing understanding of the impact of IP on social work practice. From this, the impact of other factors such as experience and role on IP experiences could be considered. There were varying levels of experience amongst the sample, with 40.6 per cent describing themselves as experienced social workers as defined by the health care and professions council (HCPC) (The College of Social Work, 2012). The majority of the sample did not hold a management role at the time of completing the survey (75.4 per cent). In terms of years within the profession, a majority had six to ten years’ experience in practice (23.2 per cent). The responses regarding experience and career stage were interesting, and reflected the high levels of turnover in social work practice, with some relatively inexperienced individuals (two to five years’ experience) holding senior or strategic positions. Due to this disparity in experience and position, it is useful to consider whether these factors impact upon the prevalence of experiences of IP. Pearson correlation suggests that experience is significantly negatively correlated to experiences of IP (r = –0.260, p = 0.023). Individuals with more years’ experience in social work were more likely to experience IP at an infrequent or moderate level than those with less experience, who reported frequent or intense experiences. Career stage was not significantly correlated with CIPS scores, suggesting that this is not an accurate measure for experience, or confidence (r = –0.189, p = 0.078). Management responsibilities also significantly correlated with CIPS scores, suggesting that managers may have less frequent IP experiences than non-managers (r = –0.224, p = 0.044). However, these correlations are not strong, and may have been impacted upon by the sample size, so further work would be needed before definitive conclusions could be drawn. It is interesting that career stage and experience levels are not similarly correlated with IP experiences; this could be because, within social work practice, career progression is not directly linked to experience levels. This is partially due to high turnover in the profession (Department for Education, 2016) and also due to qualifications and entry routes into the profession changing. Discussion Whilst this work is exploratory and small-scale in nature, it has established that IP is present in social work professionals at a level higher than would be expected, and that experience correlates with greater incidence of IP experiences. There are a number of implications that can be drawn from this and a number of questions for further research. From the literature, it can be seen that IP has a strong negative impact upon individuals (McGregor et al., 2008; Cowman et al., 2002). As the data suggest that social workers experience IP at a higher than expected rate, understanding how this may impact upon their practice is important. As IP causes individuals to approach problems with the mindset of a novice or beginner (Clance, 1985b), it may be that this could lead to practitioners approaching decisions without being biased by previous practice or experience, as previous successes are negated by IP (Vergauwe et al., 2014). However, the strategies employed by those experiencing IP are highly impractical and untenable in a large proportion of social work practice. Often, the strategies suggested to reduce the impact of IP focus on reframing thinking about one’s experiences and giving more attention to other’s views rather than overly critical and potentially flawed self-perceptions. Clance suggests that those experiencing IP should demystify success through looking at it pragmatically as opposed to in a stereotypical way (1985b). We often view successful people as ‘superhuman’, achieving success without effort due to their skills and abilities. Deconstructing these myths and recognising that success is difficult to achieve and struggling is not a sign of failure may lessen the impact of IP. Unless IP is having a significant, detrimental impact upon life, support for this deconstruction process could occur without the intervention of mental health professionals. Cognitive behavioural-based self-help approaches and techniques would be likely to be successful in supporting those experiencing IP to change their thinking regarding success. However, there are a large number of these approaches, some of which are tailored to specific needs (e.g. phobias). To identify the most appropriate avenues of support, it needs to be clear what aspect of the cognitive process is linked to IP. As discussed earlier, IP can be conceived as an attribution error. More specifically, it is an inter-personal attribution error; individuals view their own abilities as unstable and uncontrollable, which contributes to a lack of self-efficacy (Weiner, 2000). Cognitive behavioural techniques such as functional analysis and longitudinal formulation may be helpful in allowing IP-experiencing individuals to disrupt their attribution processes and change their behaviours. Additionally, behavioural changes regarding language may be helpful. Actively avoiding using phrases such as ‘it was nothing’ and considering alternative responses to praise (e.g. thank you) can help reframe an individual’s thought process. However, this requires active engagement and awareness on the part of the individual. As reflection is a key aspect of social work practice, this may be more achievable for IP-experiencing social workers than those in other professions. As those with higher levels of experience reported less frequent IP experiences that newer practitioners, understanding how these individuals developed resilience against IP feelings would be useful in supporting social work students and newly qualified practitioners, and may be useful in reducing turnover within the profession. It may be that those who experience IP at a frequent or intense level do not remain within the profession, due to the stress, mental health difficulties and burnout associated with IP (Lizano and Mor Barak, 2015; Lane, 2015). Experiencing IP would not necessarily make someone unequipped to be a social worker, and the profession may be losing potentially good practitioners due to the effects of IP. The role of the manager is important in establishing an individual’s sense of belonging within a team and capability within their role (Eraut et al., 2001). For managers to appropriately support those experiencing IP, and to ensure that the risk of burnout is lessened, there are a number of practical steps that can be taken. Helpfully, these steps are all associated with good organisational management and would benefit all members of an organisation regardless of IP levels. Ensuring roles are clearly defined would support those experiencing IP, as they would be fully aware of what is expected of them and what is not, thus reducing anxiety around performance and being ‘good enough’. Setting realistic targets and defined timelines would also support team members. This would help those experiencing IP to know what they need to achieve, reducing the need to over-prepare. Defined timelines would support those prone to procrastination in planning their work appropriately. Additionally, managers should offer regular supervision sessions in which team members are free to express their worries or concerns without fear of repercussions. These is strongly linked to the organisational culture, which managers have been found to influence heavily (Parker and Bradley, 2000). Within social work, these things should all occur as standard aspects of practice but, as management roles develop and newer entrants to the field receive more management responsibilities, there is a need to ensure that this is maintained for reasons beyond supporting social workers who experience IP. In addition to supporting members of the profession, improving understanding of the experience of IP may also be useful in supporting service users. As IP has been identified amongst a wide variety of individuals (McGregor et al., 2008; Kuliesis, 2016; Bechtoldt, 2015; McDowell et al., 2015), understanding how to develop resilience against these experiences in the face of stressful and complex decisions would be beneficial in both understanding and supporting service users. Many of the impacts or results of IP can be linked to poor mental health, and mental health is becoming an increasingly prominent issue within social work practice, with depression and anxiety being particularly common needs (Jolley et al., 2015). Thus, giving practitioners greater skills to support those experiencing anxiety, low self-esteem or self-efficacy and attribution errors may be beneficial not only in reducing IP experiences amongst professionals, but also in empowering service users to maintain their mental health. In light of these potential benefits, further research should be conducted into the experiential aspects of IP for social work practitioners. As there is not a consensus on whether IP is a state or a trait, understanding how it impacts on individuals over time is important. This requires understanding of the experiential aspects of IP and whether individuals who have overcome its impact have consciously developed strategies (suggesting it is a manageable trait) or whether this simply lessened over time (suggesting it is a state). Further work will be carried out by the author into these issues and debates. References Bechtoldt M. N. ( 2015) ‘ Wanted: Self-doubting employees—managers scoring positively on impostorism favor insecure employees in task delegation’, Personality and Individual Differences , 86, pp. 482– 6. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Blome W. W., Steib S. D. 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Imposter Phenomena and Experience Levels in Social Work: An Initial Investigation

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
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0045-3102
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1468-263X
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10.1093/bjsw/bcx109
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Abstract

Abstract Imposter phenomena (IP) is when an individual experiences unwarranted feelings of inadequacy in relation to their own abilities. Often linked to self-efficacy, individuals who experience IP doubt their own skills and attribute their successes to luck as opposed to themselves. Whilst this has been studied in relation to a number of fields, IP has not been considered in relation to social work. This article investigates the prevalence of IP amongst a small sample of currently practising social workers (fifty-nine) and utilises a survey approach to assess levels of IP. This data were explored in relation to levels of experience. From the sample, it appears that IP is more frequently occurring amongst social workers than would be expected and IP experiences are less frequent with increased levels of experience. This article considers the impact of IP upon practitioners and makes suggestions for further work. Imposter phenomena, social work, professional practice, resilience Introduction Imposter phenomena (IP), also known as imposter syndrome, was first identified by Clance and Imes (1978) and is characterised as persistent unwarranted feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence relating to one’s ability/performance (Clance, 1985b; Clance and Imes, 1978). The experience of IP may persist despite an individual achieving their goals and objectively being perceived as successful. Since its conception, IP has been discussed in relation to work performance (Bechtoldt, 2015), mental health (McGregor et al., 2008), gender (Clance and Imes, 1978) and institutional support (McDowell et al., 2015). A majority of the work investigating IP has taken place in an academic setting, focusing on feelings of imposterism in academics or students (Holmes et al., 1993; Kolligian and Sternberg, 1991; French et al., 2008); however, there has not been a focus on the impact of IP within social work beyond anecdotal accounts (Kuliesis, 2016). As social work has a strong emphasis on professional judgement in practice (Kirkman and Melrose, 2014) and requires complex evaluations to be made in ‘high-stakes’ situations (Paul, 2004), knowing whether IP is present in social workers and how this presents are useful. As social work has a strong and lasting impact upon individuals’ lives, improving understanding of social work professionals’ identities, decision-making processes and factors that impact upon these things is important, hence the research question of this work: does IP present in social workers and is this related to experience? IP tends to occur in high achievers and causes them to dismiss, discount or overlook their successes. The main characteristic of IP is an inability to internalise success (Clance, 1985b). Those who experience IP often did very well in school and have high expectations of themselves. However, their successes are often attributed to external sources, such as luck, lenient examiners/teachers/managers or other circumstances. Alternatively, success may be diminished by individuals suggesting that the task was not that difficult or that anyone would be able to achieve the same thing (Clance, 1985b). These dismissals of success mean that individuals who experience IP never correctly attribute their own achievements, which may contribute to a self-image which reflects inexperience and inability. Due to this lack of self-affirmation, IP-experiencing individuals do not approach tasks with confidence, but instead with anxiety and trepidation (Peteet et al., 2015). When someone who approaches tasks in this way enters the workplace or a profession, their attribution errors seem to have a greater emotional impact, leading to IP. This may be because school, university and other training experiences are preparatory; however, upon starting work, there is an explicit expectation that an individual is a ‘professional’ and holds the associated skills and knowledge. When someone who has not internally attributed their successes experiences this process, the identity of a ‘professional’ seems fraudulent, as they do not perceive themselves to hold the requisite skills. IP may cause individuals to doubt their ability in the workplace and question their worth as professionals. However, feelings of fraudulence alone do not suggest IP. There may be many situations where these feelings are valid due to lack of experience, skills or knowledge; the perceived fraudulence experienced in IP is unwarranted, which is what makes this phenomenon of interest. It seems that IP is linked to, but separate from, an individual’s self-efficacy and self-esteem. Previous descriptions of IP suggest that individuals have experienced positive outcomes, or success in their endeavours, but have not internalised these successes in order to build self-efficacy regarding those skills and abilities (McDowell et al., 2015; Vergauwe et al., 2014). The impact of this is that those experiencing IP approach each situation with the same anxieties and fears that a beginner would have and, as they progress or improve through effort or practice, these feelings do not diminish. There then exists a contrast between an individual’s feelings and their situation, which leads to the feelings of fraudulence (McGregor et al., 2008). Clance considered what factors may lead to an individual experiencing imposter feelings, and developed a possible explanation based upon family dynamics and childhood experiences (Clance, 1985b). Clance’s experience as a psychotherapist clearly informed this reasoning. Clance found that families of those who experience IP had high expectations, particularly regarding intelligence and what success looks like. When combined with a lack of direct or explicit praise, this creates a dynamic where the child wishes to succeed and receive praise, but has to meet an atypical and unusually high standard of success, with little reward. Clance suggested that IP experiencers also may not have ‘fitted in’ with their families, or entered a different field than was expected or valued by their family, creating a drive to prove not only that they are successful, but that their work is valid. Clance’s explanation as to why someone may develop IP has generally been accepted, with no other explanations being proposed. IP has been linked to depression, low self-esteem and low self-efficacy (McGregor et al., 2008; Vergauwe et al., 2014). However, this work has largely been investigatory, finding correlations between these phenomena rather than causal links. It is not clear at present whether IP is a cause or result of these factors, or whether they are simply commonly co-occurring. It has been noted that understanding the relationship between IP and depression may help mental health professionals in working with individuals who exhibit signs of both IP and depression (Vergauwe et al., 2014). Additionally, this suggests that similar thought processes could occur in both IP and depression, with negative cognitive triads being a particular example (McGregor et al., 2008). This could be used in adapting cognitive approaches to relieving depression to support individuals who experience IP. IP has commonly been investigated in relation to education or the workplace (Lane, 2015; Vergauwe et al., 2014). This is largely due to IP being focused on belief in skills and ability to achieve or complete goals. In addition to impacting upon an individual’s mental health, IP can also impact upon an individual’s approach to their professional work. Clance (1985) highlighted two approaches to work and decision making that were common in IP-experiencing individuals. The first of these is over-preparing. Some individuals who experienced IP felt that they needed to do more than others would consider necessary to meet the same standard. The result of this is that individuals experiencing IP may do well at a particular task or project due to the amount of work and preparation they have done; however, this is at a high cost in terms of energy, resources and time. If over-preparation becomes a continual approach, there is a greater risk of burnout or stress (Clance, 1985b). The second approach identified by Clance (1985a) is procrastination. Some individuals experiencing IP feel that tasks facing them are insurmountable and so delay starting, as they do not believe they can finish. This is more obviously problematic than over-preparing; however, some of the outcomes are the same. IP-experiencing individuals who procrastinate still have to complete their work and so may do so in a rush, which can cause stress. In social work practice, neither over-preparing nor procrastinating are tenable long-term strategies. Practitioners must be able to make decisions quickly, and sometimes without having access to all the desired information (Spratt, 2000). So the over-preparation and procrastination strategies will not be able to be carried out. This raises the question of whether IP is present amongst social workers or not, as the current understanding of IP suggests that individuals who experience IP at a moderate to frequent level would be unlikely to be able to cope with the demands of the social work role. IP is linked to lower self-efficacy and lower levels of perceived organisational support (Clance, 1985b; McDowell et al., 2015). Lower levels of self-belief may lead to the questioning of one’s ability that allows imposter-like feelings to occur (Clance, 1985b). Similarly, a lack of support from the organisation can cause individuals to question why they are not supported, potentially leading to the conclusion that they are not good enough (McDowell et al., 2015). In this situation, the propensity for low self-esteem and perceived low organisational support become linked, and impact upon each other, which may contribute to IP. This places an emphasis on the role of organisational support for all individuals, especially those experiencing IP. IP is also related to work–family conflict, but this relationship is mediated by organisational support. If the organisation is seen as supportive, resources are drained less/replenished more, allowing IP to have a lesser impact on other areas of individuals’ lives. However, research looking at the IP and work–family conflict has focused on a variety of professionals across one organisation. Looking within one profession across a variety of organisations may highlight the role of perceived organisational support more clearly. All of the factors that relate to IP could potentially have negative impacts on a professional role, such as burnout, stress or increased time off (Lane, 2015). Understanding how IP affects professionals is necessary to develop strategies to overcome or reduce these problems. This is particularly relevant in social work, as the profession has a high turnover of staff, is perceived as being high-stress and professionals are potentially more likely to experience burnout than in other roles (Lizano and Mor Barak, 2015; Kuliesis, 2016; Blome and Steib, 2014). This can impact negatively upon service users, as there is a need for continuity and consistency in service to ensure that service users maintain trusting relationships with social workers and they receive the most appropriate support (The College of Social Work, 2012). Social workers experiencing IP may have more difficulty in maintaining this consistency, and so understanding how it impacts this profession is important. IP occurs amongst a variety of professionals and managers in practice. The presence of IP affects managers’ decisions regarding task delegation. Managers with high IP scores are more likely to delegate to individuals that they perceive as also having IP. This is not perceived as rational, as individuals with greater self-confidence are more likely to succeed. However, other research suggests that individuals with IP do not perform worse than their peers, but experience more angst or feelings of stress in the process (Bechtoldt, 2015). Whilst managers delegating tasks to those they perceive as similar to them is not necessarily harmful, when this bias is based upon the perception of IP, it implies that those experiencing IP may be more likely to receive higher workloads from IP-experiencing managers. As individuals with IP may have reduced cognitive resources due to the feelings of imposterism, they may feel less able to complete a higher work-load, or subsequently have increased work–family conflicts. There are links between IP and symptoms of depression (McGregor et al., 2008). Causality is not clear in this relationship, but it should be noted that professionals with IP may be more likely to experience depression, which could impact upon their work (and those they work with). This relationship may also suggest some approaches for treating or addressing IP, through techniques found to be useful in relieving symptoms of depression, such as low self-esteem or errors in attribution. However, when considering this in relation to professional roles, care must be taken to ensure that it is not implied that mental health difficulties such as depression will always negatively impact upon an individual’s performance at work. As social work is an emotionally taxing role (D’Cruz et al., 2005), ensuring that professionals maintain their resilience and ability to be objective whilst providing care and support is important. As depression is linked to lower levels of energy or reduced conservation of emotional, cognitive and physical resources, ensuring that professionals experiencing IP do not also have these effects is important in ensuring their ability to maintain their standard of work as well as their own mental health. IP tendencies can be predicted based on the extent to which an individual participates in self-handicapping behaviours and tends towards shame affects in social interactions. The practical applications of this are somewhat limited, but may suggest that addressing shame could reduce feelings of IP. There is the implication that imposters do actually feel capable, but feel shame about presenting this, and so self-handicap/engage in imposterism. Currently, there has not been any work into the prevalence and presentation of IP amongst social workers. As social work is a highly stressful profession, with a strong importance upon decision making and high levels of staff turnover (Department for Education, 2016; Spratt, 2000; Taylor, 2013), it is possible that IP impacts upon social workers. It is of interest to understand how IP impacts upon social workers specifically because their profession has a high level of responsibility and requires individuals to have confidence in the decisions they make. As IP is linked to reduced confidence, lower self-efficacy and procrastination (Clance, 1985b; Clance and Imes, 1978), understanding how social workers manage these factors in relation to their practice will be useful and potentially allow support strategies for professionals to be developed. If social workers experiencing IP carry out the approaches of procrastination or over-preparation outlined by Clance and Imes (1978), this will have a detrimental impact upon practice and service users. Social work often requires decisions to be made and acted upon quickly (Pereira et al., 2015), meaning that procrastination or over-preparation may not be practically possible. This raises the question of how IP-experiencing individuals manage in social work practice. It may be that individuals with frequent or severe IP experiences do not stay within the profession or that they find other strategies to manage their IP feelings. As this is unclear at present, there is a need for exploratory work to understand the prevalence and impact of IP amongst social workers, which is the aim of the current study. Method A quantitative survey approach was utilised to answer the research question. The survey needed to assess the level of IP experienced by participants and additional questions would be required to assess participants’ level of experience in social work practice. The Clance IP Scale (CIPS) (Clance, 1985a) was used within this work. Whilst there are other instruments that have been created to measure IP, such as the Harvey I-P scale, CIPS has relatedly been found to be reliable, valid and appropriate (Chrisman et al., 1995; Holmes et al., 1993; French et al., 2008). Additionally, as the CIPS was created by Clance, it is more likely to measure IP as it is defined, rather than other interpretations. The CIPS comprises twenty five-point-response Likert-scale statements, some examples of which are: I can give the impression that I’m more confident than I really am. I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am. When I’ve succeeded at something and received recognition for my accomplishments, I have doubts that I can keep repeating that success.The questions can be grouped into subscales which measure different aspects of IP. These include attributing success to luck, discounting one’s own efforts and feeling like a fraud or fake. All of these subscales have been found to have internal reliability and consistency (Chrisman et al., 1995), particularly when used within theory-driven work (Holmes et al., 1993). The CIPS has also been found to be consistent with the results of other psychometric measures of similar or related phenomena such as depression, anxiety and low self-efficacy (French et al., 2008). Following gaining the appropriate permissions, the CIPS was distributed online, with some additional questions relating to the level of experience participants had in social work, whether they held a management position and for how long they had been qualified. These questions were included to allow for greater understanding of how IP occurs amongst social work professionals and to help inform further work into the role of IP in career progression (currently ongoing). There has been some debate about the relationship between IP and gender (Chrisman et al., 1995). Clance and Imes (1978) initially considered IP to predominantly occur in women, but subsequent studies have found IP occurring in men also at a similar level (Topping and Kimmel, 1985). Currently, there is not a consensus regarding IP and gender. As this research focuses on social work, understanding the links between IP and profession was more of a concern than the impact of gender. However, social work is also a highly gendered profession and, as with many of the ‘caring professions’, is stereotyped as ‘woman’s work’, which may impact upon the sample. As this work is an initial investigation, establishing the links between IP and social work is of more relevance, and later work may specifically consider gender dynamics. Additionally, not asking participants their gender improves anonymity and thus it was deemed justifiable ethically to not ask respondents for information that was not necessary. Further work may comment directly upon this, as there are gender dynamics within the profession of social work (Walsh, 2010). Participation was completely anonymous and confidential; the only identifying information asked of participants was contact details if they wished to be included in voluntary follow-up work, which was kept separate from questionnaire scores, so as to maintain anonymity. Through using an online survey service, the data were secured in line with both the Data Protection Act and ethical standards. The research was approved by the De Montfort University ethics committee prior to data collection commencing. Sample and participation An invitation to participate was sent to 120 local authority social care teams (both adults and children) across England. Contact was also made through university links with chief social workers within local authorities to encourage participation. Additional advertisements for the research were posted on Twitter, including the key term ‘social workers’ to reach appropriate audiences. Despite this potentially large audience, sixty-six responses were received to the survey, of which fifty-nine were compete and admissible for data analysis. This response rate is disappointingly low, which unfortunately is a common feature of utilising online surveys. This could potentially have been improved by approaching more teams in person to discuss the research and answer questions, or through utilising the support of professional groups such as the British Association of Social Workers more explicitly. Ensuring a representative sample is reached and delivering a good response rate is a continuing issue in survey research which is difficult to resolve, but should be acknowledged by researchers. Responses where more than a quarter of questions were not answered were removed, as an accurate score for IP tendencies could not be established. Where scores were missing, they were counted as zero. This means that levels of IP may be underestimated by the survey; however, this was deemed as appropriate, as it did not risk misapplying the label of ‘imposter’. The small sample was deemed as acceptable, as follow-up interviews will be carried out with some participants to collect more detailed data. However, as there has been no other investigation of IP amongst social workers to date, the prevalence information is novel and could inform other future research, and so warrants discussion despite being small in scale. The survey was limited to qualified and currently practising social workers. This was chosen because the demands asked of qualified social workers are different to those of unqualified practitioners, and so may have a different impact upon those experiencing IP. Additionally, as qualified practitioners are member of a professional body, their judgement and decision-making abilities are held to a higher standard, which may also impact upon IP, or how this presents in social work practice. The choice to limit the sample to currently practising individuals was because those who previously practised would be viewing the experience in hindsight, and with the benefit of reflection. This may impact upon how they perceive events and thus what their IP experience is in relation to those events. Additionally, the choice of currently practising professional meant that follow-up work could be carried out regarding experiential aspects of IP in social work practice. Local authority social workers were chosen as the sample as the research specifically is interested in the prevalence of IP amongst qualified and currently practising social workers. Local authority social work teams provide a large pool of potential participants who meet these criteria, and there are existing channels of accessibility to these individuals. As participation in the survey was voluntary, self-selection processes were used beyond these criteria. It was made clear in the participant information that experience or knowledge of IP was not a requirement of participation; as the work was investigating prevalence, participation of those who do not identify with IP is also necessary to ensure validity of the sample. The process of data collection highlights some issues with the use of e-mail to contact social work teams and the need for pre-existing relationships with individuals within social work teams to gain access. The e-mail addresses used to contact teams were collected from local authority websites and contact pages. A significant number of these addresses when contacted (approximately 10 per cent) were either incorrect, no longer available or undeliverable. This highlights a problem regarding digital accessibility and the currency of contact information. Where there were existing contacts within local authorities, the invitation information was given directly to social workers, which is likely to elicit a better response than using generic contact e-mail addresses. However, there is awareness that the individuals passing on the invitation were managers or individuals with positions of seniority over front line staff. This may have created a sense of obligation to participate as opposed to being a truly voluntary choice. These issues do not have a clear resolution; however, if social work research is to develop, practitioners need to be more aware of research opportunities, or have accessible channels to participate in research that do not rely on existing connections or organisational contacts. Findings Possible scores on the CIPS range from 20 to 100. The scores from each Likert-scale response are totalled to give an overall score which is indicative if the level of IP feelings an individual experiences. Scores are ranked in terms of IP experience, as shown in Table 1. Table 1. CIPS scoring Score  IP experience  40 or less  None or infrequent IP experiences  41–60  Moderate IP experiences  61–80  Frequent IP experiences  81 or above  Intense IP experiences  Score  IP experience  40 or less  None or infrequent IP experiences  41–60  Moderate IP experiences  61–80  Frequent IP experiences  81 or above  Intense IP experiences  Table 1. CIPS scoring Score  IP experience  40 or less  None or infrequent IP experiences  41–60  Moderate IP experiences  61–80  Frequent IP experiences  81 or above  Intense IP experiences  Score  IP experience  40 or less  None or infrequent IP experiences  41–60  Moderate IP experiences  61–80  Frequent IP experiences  81 or above  Intense IP experiences  Of the fifty-nine responses analysed, the overall scores ranged from 29 to 100. It is unusual for a score of 100, so this response may be considered as an outlier. However, in further work, this individual may be contacted to gain a better understanding of their experience of IP. The mean score was 59.242, which is representative of moderate IP feelings. The scores were normally distributed, with the majority of respondents experiencing IP at a moderate to frequent level. Frequencies for each level of IP experience can be seen in Table 2. The data were normally distributed (F = 1.323, p = 0.264), allowing parametric testing and Pearson’s correlations to be carried out. Table 2. IP level frequencies IP level  Frequency  Percentage  Infrequent  10  16.9  Moderate  22  37.3  Frequent  20  33.9  Intense  7  11.9  Total  59  100.0  IP level  Frequency  Percentage  Infrequent  10  16.9  Moderate  22  37.3  Frequent  20  33.9  Intense  7  11.9  Total  59  100.0  Table 2. IP level frequencies IP level  Frequency  Percentage  Infrequent  10  16.9  Moderate  22  37.3  Frequent  20  33.9  Intense  7  11.9  Total  59  100.0  IP level  Frequency  Percentage  Infrequent  10  16.9  Moderate  22  37.3  Frequent  20  33.9  Intense  7  11.9  Total  59  100.0  To understand whether IP occurs amongst social workers at a level that is different from other populations, a one-sample t-test was carried out. As there is no consensus about the mean level of IP amongst the general population to act as a contrast, a theoretical model was deemed sufficient. The test comparison value was set at 50, as this would be the mean in a perfectly normally distributed population. The t-test showed a significant difference in the sample CIPS scores and the theoretical model (p < 0.001), suggesting that IP is experienced more frequently amongst the social workers sampled than would be expected. This is also reflected in the frequencies given in Table 2. Recognising that this difference is significant is helpful in developing understanding of the impact of IP on social work practice. From this, the impact of other factors such as experience and role on IP experiences could be considered. There were varying levels of experience amongst the sample, with 40.6 per cent describing themselves as experienced social workers as defined by the health care and professions council (HCPC) (The College of Social Work, 2012). The majority of the sample did not hold a management role at the time of completing the survey (75.4 per cent). In terms of years within the profession, a majority had six to ten years’ experience in practice (23.2 per cent). The responses regarding experience and career stage were interesting, and reflected the high levels of turnover in social work practice, with some relatively inexperienced individuals (two to five years’ experience) holding senior or strategic positions. Due to this disparity in experience and position, it is useful to consider whether these factors impact upon the prevalence of experiences of IP. Pearson correlation suggests that experience is significantly negatively correlated to experiences of IP (r = –0.260, p = 0.023). Individuals with more years’ experience in social work were more likely to experience IP at an infrequent or moderate level than those with less experience, who reported frequent or intense experiences. Career stage was not significantly correlated with CIPS scores, suggesting that this is not an accurate measure for experience, or confidence (r = –0.189, p = 0.078). Management responsibilities also significantly correlated with CIPS scores, suggesting that managers may have less frequent IP experiences than non-managers (r = –0.224, p = 0.044). However, these correlations are not strong, and may have been impacted upon by the sample size, so further work would be needed before definitive conclusions could be drawn. It is interesting that career stage and experience levels are not similarly correlated with IP experiences; this could be because, within social work practice, career progression is not directly linked to experience levels. This is partially due to high turnover in the profession (Department for Education, 2016) and also due to qualifications and entry routes into the profession changing. Discussion Whilst this work is exploratory and small-scale in nature, it has established that IP is present in social work professionals at a level higher than would be expected, and that experience correlates with greater incidence of IP experiences. There are a number of implications that can be drawn from this and a number of questions for further research. From the literature, it can be seen that IP has a strong negative impact upon individuals (McGregor et al., 2008; Cowman et al., 2002). As the data suggest that social workers experience IP at a higher than expected rate, understanding how this may impact upon their practice is important. As IP causes individuals to approach problems with the mindset of a novice or beginner (Clance, 1985b), it may be that this could lead to practitioners approaching decisions without being biased by previous practice or experience, as previous successes are negated by IP (Vergauwe et al., 2014). However, the strategies employed by those experiencing IP are highly impractical and untenable in a large proportion of social work practice. Often, the strategies suggested to reduce the impact of IP focus on reframing thinking about one’s experiences and giving more attention to other’s views rather than overly critical and potentially flawed self-perceptions. Clance suggests that those experiencing IP should demystify success through looking at it pragmatically as opposed to in a stereotypical way (1985b). We often view successful people as ‘superhuman’, achieving success without effort due to their skills and abilities. Deconstructing these myths and recognising that success is difficult to achieve and struggling is not a sign of failure may lessen the impact of IP. Unless IP is having a significant, detrimental impact upon life, support for this deconstruction process could occur without the intervention of mental health professionals. Cognitive behavioural-based self-help approaches and techniques would be likely to be successful in supporting those experiencing IP to change their thinking regarding success. However, there are a large number of these approaches, some of which are tailored to specific needs (e.g. phobias). To identify the most appropriate avenues of support, it needs to be clear what aspect of the cognitive process is linked to IP. As discussed earlier, IP can be conceived as an attribution error. More specifically, it is an inter-personal attribution error; individuals view their own abilities as unstable and uncontrollable, which contributes to a lack of self-efficacy (Weiner, 2000). Cognitive behavioural techniques such as functional analysis and longitudinal formulation may be helpful in allowing IP-experiencing individuals to disrupt their attribution processes and change their behaviours. Additionally, behavioural changes regarding language may be helpful. Actively avoiding using phrases such as ‘it was nothing’ and considering alternative responses to praise (e.g. thank you) can help reframe an individual’s thought process. However, this requires active engagement and awareness on the part of the individual. As reflection is a key aspect of social work practice, this may be more achievable for IP-experiencing social workers than those in other professions. As those with higher levels of experience reported less frequent IP experiences that newer practitioners, understanding how these individuals developed resilience against IP feelings would be useful in supporting social work students and newly qualified practitioners, and may be useful in reducing turnover within the profession. It may be that those who experience IP at a frequent or intense level do not remain within the profession, due to the stress, mental health difficulties and burnout associated with IP (Lizano and Mor Barak, 2015; Lane, 2015). Experiencing IP would not necessarily make someone unequipped to be a social worker, and the profession may be losing potentially good practitioners due to the effects of IP. The role of the manager is important in establishing an individual’s sense of belonging within a team and capability within their role (Eraut et al., 2001). For managers to appropriately support those experiencing IP, and to ensure that the risk of burnout is lessened, there are a number of practical steps that can be taken. Helpfully, these steps are all associated with good organisational management and would benefit all members of an organisation regardless of IP levels. Ensuring roles are clearly defined would support those experiencing IP, as they would be fully aware of what is expected of them and what is not, thus reducing anxiety around performance and being ‘good enough’. Setting realistic targets and defined timelines would also support team members. This would help those experiencing IP to know what they need to achieve, reducing the need to over-prepare. Defined timelines would support those prone to procrastination in planning their work appropriately. Additionally, managers should offer regular supervision sessions in which team members are free to express their worries or concerns without fear of repercussions. These is strongly linked to the organisational culture, which managers have been found to influence heavily (Parker and Bradley, 2000). Within social work, these things should all occur as standard aspects of practice but, as management roles develop and newer entrants to the field receive more management responsibilities, there is a need to ensure that this is maintained for reasons beyond supporting social workers who experience IP. In addition to supporting members of the profession, improving understanding of the experience of IP may also be useful in supporting service users. As IP has been identified amongst a wide variety of individuals (McGregor et al., 2008; Kuliesis, 2016; Bechtoldt, 2015; McDowell et al., 2015), understanding how to develop resilience against these experiences in the face of stressful and complex decisions would be beneficial in both understanding and supporting service users. Many of the impacts or results of IP can be linked to poor mental health, and mental health is becoming an increasingly prominent issue within social work practice, with depression and anxiety being particularly common needs (Jolley et al., 2015). Thus, giving practitioners greater skills to support those experiencing anxiety, low self-esteem or self-efficacy and attribution errors may be beneficial not only in reducing IP experiences amongst professionals, but also in empowering service users to maintain their mental health. In light of these potential benefits, further research should be conducted into the experiential aspects of IP for social work practitioners. As there is not a consensus on whether IP is a state or a trait, understanding how it impacts on individuals over time is important. This requires understanding of the experiential aspects of IP and whether individuals who have overcome its impact have consciously developed strategies (suggesting it is a manageable trait) or whether this simply lessened over time (suggesting it is a state). Further work will be carried out by the author into these issues and debates. References Bechtoldt M. N. ( 2015) ‘ Wanted: Self-doubting employees—managers scoring positively on impostorism favor insecure employees in task delegation’, Personality and Individual Differences , 86, pp. 482– 6. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Blome W. W., Steib S. D. 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The British Journal of Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Oct 17, 2017

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