Why Employees Feel Inferior and What to Do About It

Inferiority complexes run rampant in organizations. Truth? It isn’t the organizations that create the issue but rather the structures that reinforce it.

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Consider the fact that school systems teach rules. Rule number one:  Put authority figures (teachers, parents, guardians, etc.) up on pedestals.  Respect these individuals who have authority (aka power) over you, and take what they say as gospel truth. Even if what they say is negative and nonsupportive, believe it anyway.

This mentality gets reinforced in organizational structures where individuals find themselves in parallel circumstances, dealing with hierarchies and rank. The automatic (often subconscious) response is to go back to that originally programmed behavior, which often results in feeling inferior and less important than others.

These mind-sets and beliefs continue at the management and leadership levels. Promotions often come with big power trips where leaders buy into the belief that their rank now equals more importance, which results in a sense of superiority over colleagues.
The inferiority issue isn’t just at the manager/employee level either. It happens at the peer level, too.  Individuals tend to compare themselves with peers and judge themselves if peers are surpassing them and rising faster in rank or position.

Inferiority Isn’t a Talent Issue

What’s intriguing is the fact that inferiority really doesn’t have anything to do with talent. In fact, the employees who have the most to share and contribute are usually the least vocal. Perplexing but true. Why would someone who knows he or she has talent and more to contribute not share or express interest in advancing?

Perhaps at one point these individuals did speak up, and it had negative consequences. They may have taken a risk (early in their career—or even in childhood) and found that others (peers, supervisors, authority figures, etc.) belittled their contributions—or even experienced jealousy and/or sabotage from those who feared they’d be surpassed by these individuals.

We must realize that work and career equal safety and security. Work also provides a feeling of belonging and fitting in and gives individuals a sense of identity and value in the world. If any of these basic needs are threatened (i.e., stepping up, speaking out, and taking risks) those feelings of safety and security go out the window, while the status quo and silence ensues.

So, what can organizations do to help employees learn to trust themselves and the organization?

Understand and Honor Individual Work Styles

Not all employees who want to contribute want to rise in rank. Perhaps an individual wants to make a difference but in a lateral way. We’ve all experienced the individual who has expertise in his or her  role who then gets promoted and has a terrible time as a manager.

You can create more trust by giving employees the opportunity to gain more self-awareness.  Provide tools and resources that not only help them access their skills and personality styles but that allow them to identify their natural strengths.  Most of us tend to focus on the areas we lack and need to improve vs. discovering and expanding areas where we are naturally strong.

Gallup’s Strengths Finder 2.0 is the hallmark of strength discovery and has some great tools that are inexpensive and easy to implement throughout all levels of the organization.

Also, people do their best work in different environments. Open work spaces and even office environments aren’t for everyone. As Susan Cain explains in her Ted Talk, The Power of Introverts, certain individuals come alive and do their best work in quieter, less distracting spaces. She encourages us to “put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us,” which creates a great opportunity for an organization that wants to generate more trust. Understand your employees’ “zone of stimulation” and then give it to them.

Create Thought Leaders at Every Level

In continuing to understand your employees, discover ways for them to share their gifts and talents no matter what level job they hold. As John Hall explains in his Forbes article Don’t Silence your Team – Nurture Your Employees To Be Thought Leaders, thought leaders aren’t just the C-suite or the experts speaking on stage or writing books. Everyone has something to share—and every employee brings a unique perspective and view on different topics. By creating opportunities for employees to share their voices, the organization demonstrates that you want to hear what employees think, which, in turn, creates trust and shows that you value them and their perspectives.

Provide Unbiased Support for Employee Career Progression

Another way to show you value your employees is to provide opportunities for them to speak freely about their career aspirations. Organizations are becoming much more transparent and collaborative with their employees—acknowledging that staying at one company for your entire career is now a thing of the past.

Providing unbiased third-party resources such as career coaches on-site demonstrates your caring and commitment to employee growth. This support not only gives career guidance, but it also helps develop communication skills that facilitate conversations with managers about “what’s next” for them whether that’s at their current employer—or elsewhere.  Bottom-line?  Transparency builds trust.

Level the Playing Field

The most powerful way to create employee trust is to help leaders understand that the true meaning of leadership is equal partners. Leaders who participate in programs focused on areas such as Servant/Compassionate Leadership begin to understand the transformational effect being influential, inspiring, and empathetic has on their team and the organization.

When a leader can be a true coach—one who focuses less on a personal agenda and more on authentically supporting his or her team members’ talents—the leader builds a unique loyalty and bond of trust that is irreplaceable.

An organization that commits to creating a trusting environment will inevitably witness a shift in culture. It will benefit from empowering employees to do their best work and feel safe to share; it will see more creativity and sharing; and it will be known as a great, innovative, inspiring place to work.

Brenda Stanton is Vice President for Keystone Partners where she advises organizations and senior leaders on complex career management and leadership development challenges. She joined Keystone Partners in 2011 as a consultant, partnering with individuals on the development and successful execution of customized strategic career plans.

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