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Imposter Syndrome 2.0?

Imagine getting a sudden boost in status at work that changes you from a largely ignored worker to someone whom others turn to for advice and help.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But a new study finds that an unanticipated gain in status can come with some negative baggage — if you did not earn the boost. Researchers studied American employees of a Japanese firm who didn’t enjoy particularly high status with the company — until it adopted English as its official language, and Japanese employees who didn’t speak English had to rely more on their American counterparts.

While the American employees enjoyed their sudden boost in status, they also had some misgivings, said Tracy Dumas, co-author of the study and a management and human resources researcher at The Ohio State University.

For one, they knew that this status boost was given to them — they didn’t earn it. And they knew it could be taken away.

“There was a clear sense of a lack of control,” Dumas said. “They couldn’t tie this status boost to something they did. If you earn it, you feel some sense of control and certainty about your new position within the company, but they didn’t have that.” That meant that many of the employees felt their good luck was unstable, and that another new policy could reverse their good fortune.

While this study focused on a language mandate, Dumas said there are a lot of different ways that employees may find their status has changed within their company for reasons they didn’t control.

“Steve Jobs elevated designers at Apple, somewhat at the expense of engineers,” Dumas said. “The work didn’t necessarily change, but suddenly designers saw their value rise at Apple.”

It could even be a less obvious change in status. A new manager may favor more introverted employees at his firm who more match his own style.

Whatever the reasons, managers should pay close attention to how changes in status affect all employees at their companies.

“Managers have to consider how changes will shape power and status dynamics and how people work together,” Dumas said. “And they need to realize that even employees who have seen a boost in status may be experiencing some negative feelings about the change.”