How to manage someone who intimidates you

Oct 06, 2020

6 mins

How to manage someone who intimidates you
Marlène Moreira

Journaliste indépendante.

Being a manager is all about dealing with systems—and people. So what should you do if you find yourself in awe of a member of your team? It isn’t that they are malicious or even toxic, but that they intimidate you, almost to the point of fear. This can happen if you feel they have something that you don’t. Maybe they are more ambitious, organized, and competent in their field. Or they may be more charismatic, sociable, and better at networking. What’s the best way to deal with such feelings? We asked several managers to explain what it feels like to manage someone they find intimidating—from being at a loss for words to losing all self-confidence.

Learn to let the experts do their jobs

The first day Peter joined his new company, he quickly realized the magnitude of the challenge facing him. The rapidly growing start-up had high standards. It had set ambitious objectives, its employees were highly regarded in their fields and there was almost no room for error. Even though he had previously been in a position of authority, he realized that he would have to rethink his approach as head of marketing. “In the world of start-ups, everyone said that you need to hire people who are better than you are. It’s easy to say and more or less easy to do, but hard to deal with in reality,” he said. Then his talented and fully functional team needed to recruit someone who was an expert in search engine optimization (SEO), an area he thought he had mastered. “The new hire blew me away from the first interview. For our first weekly progress meetings, I almost did some revision on the topics beforehand so that I wouldn’t feel stupid in comparison.” It was a lost cause from the start. Soon Peter had to accept he had nothing new to teach the new employee from a technical perspective.

At some point in their careers, most young managers must learn to let go and leave it to the experts. This is a challenging time and often leads to serious introspection. According to Vanessa Lauraire, an occupational psychologist and psychotherapist, the key to success in this area is to understand that a managerial role relies less on technical skills and more on personal qualities and soft skills. In other words, managers need leadership skills first and foremost. “To obtain the natural authority that adds a sense of legitimacy and removes feelings of intimidation, managers must first earn their teams’ respect and build trust. And they won’t get that from knowledge alone. Managers must take charge, opening up opportunities for dialogue and setting the tone for the group as a whole.”

Following the advice of his friends and family, Peter eventually put things into perspective. He reassessed his relationship with the team, especially the SEO expert. “At our weekly progress meetings, I simply ask him questions, challenge him and push him to develop his thinking until he finds his own answers,” he said. While Peter doesn’t always understand the conclusions drawn by the SEO expert, the company’s rising sales figures show that they work. As a result, Peter’s role as a manager is also validated. “Since that time, I feel like he finally realizes that I have something to offer. I push him to go the extra mile and give him all the tools he needs to advance.”

Young managers are in a difficult position. “They are under scrutiny from above and below,” said Lauraire. “A lot is expected of them. They must relay directives, act as a mediator between employees on the job and top management and help teams to grow. And they must do all of this while producing results aligned with the objectives of top management and factoring in the constraints of everyday business realities.”

Establish legitimacy in challenging situations

For two years, Maddie had been managing the sales team of a small business. It was a great role for someone under the age of 30. Following a merger with one of her company’s suppliers, however, the job became much harder. Suddenly she was working alongside the supplier’s former sales manager, an experienced, charismatic man in his forties. It was smooth sailing at first. “For some time, the reporting relationship wasn’t clear. We were at the same level. He acted like my coach and taught me a lot. Things took a turn for the worse only after the founder announced I would ‘officially’ be his line manager.” Convinced of her worth, Maddie felt the team also saw her position as justified. However, it wasn’t so easy to have her voice heard by the former sales manager.

Does age determine legitimacy? Lauraire explains that many companies find it difficult to manage this intergenerational aspect of the workplace. “There’s a tendency to view older people as all-knowing. And that they must be leaders, even if they have neither the desire nor the skills to be. And while attitudes are slowly changing, many young managers have difficulty getting older employees to accept their approach. Feeling intimidated by experienced colleagues is natural, but it shouldn’t cause young managers to doubt their skills and leadership abilities. People don’t just chance upon a role,” she said. Significant age differences add another dimension to the need for mutual understanding. These gaps must be considered so that everyone—managers and employees alike—can find their place.

In Maddie’s case, the situation with her older colleague was even more frustrating because they had both enjoyed being on an equal footing. “We would go for coffee regularly to talk about our ideas for the business. We got a lot out of it. Now I dread face-to-face meetings with him. I rarely entrust him with the same kinds of tasks I’d give other people on the team. That’s because I know he won’t stick to my strategy. We haven’t been able to find a happy medium.” For the moment, Maddie is still looking for a solution to her situation.

Taking on a new role with someone who knew you in the previous one creates an additional challenge.

In this situation, feeling intimidated isn’t necessarily about the other person, it stems from your own discomfort. This is especially true if that person acted as a kind of role model or guide in the beginning. To clear the air, give them a chance to express any reservations they might have about your position. That way, you’ll establish a healthy foundation for a good working relationship.

How to deal with feelings of intimidation

Intimidation plays a role in all our social interactions. You might feel intimidated by someone because of their looks, personality, intellect or social status. Whatever the reason, most people avoid talking about it openly, which means the person who intimidates you is in the dark.

Intimidation can also be emotionally suffocating and can cause managers to lose confidence in their leadership skills. Such feelings are highly subjective, so they can be overcome.

Know your true value.

Lauraire explains that managers don’t just appear out of nowhere. Managers are the product of their own character traits, beliefs and experiences. As a result, they can be intimidated by what they perceive as desirable qualities or behaviours in others. What’s more, they might well feel that they lack such qualities. Our strongest feelings of intimidation often match our own insecurities. Knowing what you admire or envy in another person is the first step to regaining your self-confidence. And the second? Being aware of your own strengths.

Consider what you have to offer others—no matter how intimidating you find them. Do you admire their enthusiasm and quick wit? In that case, you could teach them how to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Are you intimidated by their natural charisma? Then consider helping them by sharing your in-depth knowledge of the company and your professional connections.

Recognise that it’s all about ego.

Ego is a breeding ground for intimidation. And while it doesn’t always lead to arrogance, it often makes people feel insecure. If you worry constantly about how others perceive you, you become fixated on their opinions. The greater your awareness, the less control your ego will have over you.

Research from the University of Lincoln examined football players in the English Premier League to better understand how they avoided becoming intimidated by their opponents. The study revealed that these footballers shared a number of personal traits, which are also useful in the professional world: they don’t fear failure, have learned to accept personal limitations and are able to overcome their weaknesses by relying on their strengths. Most importantly, they demonstrate a strong desire to push themselves further. Ready to follow in their footsteps?

“Don’t forget that the company’s objective is productivity,” said Lauraire. Managers don’t just end up where they are by chance. They have proved themselves to be worthy of the position in one way or another, whether it is their knowledge, charisma, organizational expertise, or values.

First names have been changed

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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