Everyone feels insecure from time to time, perhaps particularly in certain situations. You may feel that you’re not as attractive, intelligent, or well-situated in life as you could be. Comparing yourself to the people around you can make you feel even worse.
Some people compensate for insecurities by trying to show that they’re better than others. They may constantly brag about their achievements, remind others about their successes (even if others are well aware of these), or belittle their friends and family members.
The psychologist Alfred Adler, who coined the term “inferiority complex,” referred to this tendency as “striving for superiority.” In the worst case scenario, striving for superiority means that you’re stepping on the feelings of those around you. The only way you can make yourself feel bigger is by making them feel smaller.
There are times when insecurities are well-justified, however, and admitting those feelings is psychologically healthy. If you’ve been confronted by a striving-for-superiority co-worker, boss, or friend, it’s normal to feel like questioning your self-worth. However, recognizing that you’ve been manipulated into feeling this way can help you shake aside that negative self-assessment.
You can also be made to feel insecure by actual events in your life: Your romantic partner threatens to leave you or expresses concern about the future of your relationship. Your teenaged daughter shouts in your face that you’re a terrible parent. Or, your parents can make you feel inadequate by pointing out all your failings and missed opportunities. In all of these cases, you wonder what you’ve done wrong. Feeling better in those situations involves separating your contribution to the problem from the other person’s.
Feelings of insecurity can also occur in response to real threats to your livelihood. When the economy takes a nosedive, the effects reverberate throughout the feelings that workers have about their futures. The only way to counter those feelings of insecurity is to receive reassurance that your job isn’t really on the line. If it is, however, you’re bound to become stressed both at home and in the workplace. Although you realize that the problem isn’t you, but the economy, it’s still hard not to feel preoccupied about your future ability to earn a living.
To examine the reactions of employees to job insecurity, Peking University psychologist Hai-jiang Wang and colleagues (2015) investigated the possible strategies that employers could use to alleviate the negative reactions of their workers to a troubling economic climate. They were particularly concerned with the question of how to keep employees feeling engaged in their work so that they could remain productive. From the standpoint of the stressed employee, the question is slightly different: How can you focus on your work, not your worries, when talk of layoffs is everywhere?
Feeling insecure about your job doesn’t necessarily mean that your worries are realistic. Wang et al. note that job insecurity results from the belief that your job duties will change or that you’ll lose your job and it can be high or low, depending on the situation. In other words, “the essential characteristic of job insecurity is the level of uncertainty an employee associates with his or her job continuity” (p. 1250).
Previous research has shown that job insecurity is common, it can take place independent of anything actually happening in the workplace (or economy), and that ultimately it takes its toll on your job satisfaction, feelings of commitment to your organization, sense of trust, and even your health. It might be most rational to cope with job insecurity by shoring up your productivity, but whether you do this or not can depend in part on the attitudes of your employers.
The key ingredient that the workplace provides to the insecurity-productivity equation, Wang and team believe, is organizational justice, or fair treatment to employees. The more insecure you feel, the more important it is for your workplace to promote the message that no matter what, you’ll be treated equitably. This follows from the principle, Wang et al. argue, of “uncertainty management theory.” The more uncertainty you face, the more your happiness and productivity will depend on this perception that the organization will treat you fairly. Those feelings of fairness will allow you to feel more engaged with your work, which helps bolster your productivity.
To investigate the relationships among job insecurity, organizational justice, work engagement, and productivity, the researchers surveyed employees and supervisors in a large Chinese insurance company. The study was carried out over three waves so that relationships among these factors could be tracked over time. Although a correlational study, the fact that data were available from several time points meant that relationships at an earlier time could be used to predict later outcomes.
As predicted, Wang and team found that the more insecure workers felt, the less engaged they were in their job, and the less productive they became. This occurred only when the insurance workers perceived their organization as one that would not treat them fairly. In these conditions, they feel less engaged in their work and as a result, less productive. As the authors conclude, “fair treatment from the organization could make them feel self-affirmed in the organization, which can attenuate their negative affective reactions to job insecurity” (p. 1254).
If you’re feeling insecure, whether in your job or your relationships, this will negatively affect you the most when you believe you won’t be fairly treated. People can handle insecurity as long as they believe someone is watching out for their well-being. Having faith in your employer or your partner can help you get through those waves of insecurity that may overcome you from time to time.
In the long run, treating each other fairly can help all of us feel more secure, engaged, and productive. Whether for yourself or those with whom you’re close, keeping in mind this notion of fairness can ultimately benefit everyone’s sense of fulfillment.
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Wang, H., Lu, C., & Siu, O. (2015). Job insecurity and job performance: The moderating role of organizational justice and the mediating role of work engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(4), 1249-1258. doi:10.1037/a0038330
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015