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Question – How should I approach an intimidating boss?

Are you struggling with a difficult or scary superior? Our career coach gives some advice on how best to tackle a potentially sticky situation.

Question: When taking the first steps into a career after leaving university, how should I deal with an intimidating boss when I have little experience but am eager to learn?

I’m going to start this answer by distinguishing between intimidating and bullying.

Intimidating is definitely a suboptimal management style, but it is relatively common in the workplace and something we probably all have to deal with at some point.

Bullying goes beyond this: UNISON (the UK’s biggest union) has defined workplace bullying as persistent offensive, intimidating, humiliating behaviour, which attempts to undermine an individual employee. If you experience this, don’t put up with it, report it to HR, a union representative, or tell a trusted colleague.

So how to deal with an intimidating boss? Here’s a couple of suggestions:


What’s intimidating? 

Is it their behaviour? Their status? Their reputation? Their expectations? What specifically about their behaviour, status, reputation or expectations?

If you can identify and name the source of your feelings of intimidation, it will make it easier to address it. Reputation and status are sort-of superficial, intimidating behaviour or expectations are more serious.


How much is down to you? How much is down to them?

Sometimes, our response to a difficult workplace relationship has as much impact on our wellbeing as the relationship itself. To what extent are you feeling the understandable intimidation of being in the workplace for the first time? To what extent are you just not used to the rough edges we sometimes encounter at work?

And to what extent is their behaviour or expectations unreasonable, to what extent are they genuinely intimidating? One way of assessing this is to follow the next suggestion, which is to…


Get the big picture

What do other people think? How do your colleagues experience this person, are they intimidated too? How have they addressed it, what has been tried before to remedy this?

Decide on a course of action

Once you’ve thought the situation through, you can decide on a course of action.

One option is to modify your expectations of the relationship, and what you interpret as intimidating. This could be part of the normal adjustments we all have to make when starting in a new workplace. Reframe it as simply a direct management style, or high expectations. It might be suboptimal – but few bosses are perfect.

The other option is to address it by talking to your manager and letting them know how you feel. If you do this, make sure you have specific examples to share, and talk about the behaviour, not the person. For example, say: “When you stand up and raise your voice, I feel intimidated” not “You are intimidating.”

It’s difficult to have a conversation like this, but hard conversations are part of work. And you will be surprised how often people are unaware of how they come across to others! They may welcome the feedback.

In summary, don’t put up with bullying behaviour, but do be prepared for people who can be intimidating at times. Think through the situation, make whatever reasonable adjustments you can, and have the courage to address this with your boss if necessary.

And if you really feel miserable, leave and find another job. Life is too short and work takes up too much of our time!

 

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