July 22, 2019

Why your employees are intimidated by you (and 4 ways to change that)

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on June 12, 2020.

    While most managers believe they're friendly and approachable, research shows that the majority of employees don't feel comfortable speaking up to their superiors. Here's how managers can "dial … down" their scariness and encourage feedback in the workplace, Megan Reitz and John Higgins write for Harvard Business Review.

    Learn more: Read our how-to guides for being a better manager

    Reitz is a professor of leadership and dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School. Higgins is an independent researcher, coach, consultant, and author.

    Are managers 'scary'?

    Most managers believe they're approachable. In fact, a survey conducted by Reitz and Higgins found that about two-thirds of managers said they are "never" or "rarely scary" to their reports, Reitz and Higgins write.

    The survey also revealed that managers assume they're even less intimidating to their peers and bosses. Three-quarters of respondents said it was unlikely their peers would find them scary, while 80% said it was unlikely in the case of their superiors.

    But those perceptions don't "add up," Reitz and Higgins write. They note that evidence shows that employees find their colleagues intimidating, and that "managers in particular" come across "as much scarier than they realize," according to Reitz and Higgins.

    4 ways managers can be less 'scary'

    To make themselves approachable, managers can't "underestimate [their] scariness," according to Higgins and Reitz. "If employees are afraid to speak up, engagement suffers, learning moments go unrecognized, misconduct goes unquestioned, and innovations go unrealized," they write.

    With these issues in mind, Reitz and Higgins offer suggestions for how managers can stop "underestimat[ing their] scariness" and become more approachable.

    1. Consider your job title. Labels such as "boss" or "CEO" often reflect a high level of authority, and can make a manager appear more intimidating. At the same time, people with more senior titles are usually more comfortable speaking up due to "'advantage blindness'—a bias in which those of us in privileged positions assume others experience a situation as we do," Reitz and Higgins write.

      But that "advantage blindness" means senior leaders "often forget what it is like to be in a more junior role," Reitz and Higgins write.

      Managers should consider their label and think about the intimidation factors that come with it, Reitz and Higgins write.

    2. Be conscious of your facial expressions. People communicate subconsciously through facial expressions and body language, meaning sometimes managers are sending "nonverbal 'shut up' signals rather than 'speak up' ones," according to Reitz and Higgins.

      "When you're thinking deeply you might tend to frown—but that is readily interpreted as disapproval through the eyes of others," Reitz and Higgins write. "You might have a smile that appears to others as more of a smirk. Perhaps you suffer from 'angry resting face.'"

      Reitz and Higgins acknowledge that "it's tough to change your gesture habits all at once." So to help, "manage others' expectations," Reitz and Higgins suggest explaining your intentions so that employees don't get the wrong idea, Reitz and Higgins write.

    3. Consider your responses. When was the last time someone challenged you? If you can't remember, you can "consider yourself properly scary," Reitz and Higgins write.

      When you're in a privileged position at work, people will examine your responses to being challenged. "Reacting negatively … with overt anger, dismissal, or disinterest—means that you'll be challenged less often in the future," according to Reitz and Higgins. Similarly, responding to challenges by asking people to bring you "solutions rather than problems" will mean that some people will avoid coming to you at all—especially if they're dealing with an issue that is particularly complex, Reitz and Higgins write.

      Instead, Reitz and Higgins write managers should aim to develop a "culture of psychological safety where employees can be honest about bad news" and consider whether they response is deterring colleagues from speaking their minds.

    4. Encourage specific feedback. Because employees are often too intimidated to speak up, having an open door policy may not be enough to get employees to contribute feedback, Reitz and Higgins warn.
    5. "Wise leaders understand that and recognize that they need to be more direct in inviting feedback and challenge," according to Reitz and Higgins.

      This often means asking employees more specific questions, such as, "What would be one key thing I could change in order to become even more approachable?'" or "'What do you all know that I will never get to know, but really need to know?'" (Reitz/Higgins, Harvard Business Review, 7/18).

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