Let’s face it: Everyone has had an intimidating boss. After all, there’s a clear hierarchy in the relationship—bosses are inherently “superior” to employees. They have authority over you. They can, in essence, make or break your career future. So, it’s only natural if you feel somewhat on edge in their presence.
But some bosses can be tougher than others. Some can come off as unapproachable, overpowering or downright scary to deal with. If you’re not careful, working for an intimidating boss can really hold you back professionally. Without a clear strategy, you can end up shutting down, which can harm your performance and weaken your reputation.
If you’ve got a highly intimidating boss, here are some useful strategies to help you cope.
Note: This is not the same as dealing with a boss who is demonstrating inappropriate or overly aggressive behavior. When these things are happening, you need to draw clear boundaries and define exactly what is acceptable and what is not. This article is about bosses who are intense and demanding, but not necessarily doing things that warrant direct confrontation.
7 Ways to Cope with an Intimidating Boss
1. Try to Build Personal Rapport
Your boss is a 3-dimensional human, which means he or she has a life outside of work. They might even have personal hobbies and interests similar to yours. With a little effort, you can probably find a few things you have in common. Even something as simple as a shared love of family or a passion for the local baseball team can ease interaction and help you feel more on “equal” footing.
2. Mentally and Emotionally Prepare
In my experience, these kinds of bosses usually know they are intimidating. It gives them a sense of power (which is sometimes overcompensating for deep insecurity beneath the surface). They need people who can deal with their high-pressure ways and not take it personally. Having worked for an intimidating boss myself, I know that mindset is key. Try to mentally and emotionally steel yourself. If you know what you’re up against, it’s a lot easier to manage. When you’re caught off guard by it, that’s when it becomes much harder.
3. Look for Patterns
Observe your boss and see if you can identify any clear patterns of behavior. Some qualities that contribute to intimidation may be elevated at certain times. For example, when under stress, your boss may get extra moody. When facing a tight deadline, he or she may lose all patience. Once you understand the pattern, you can then adapt your own behaviors (in response to theirs) to ease interactions during these times.
4. Stay Composed
Even if you feel intimidated, you don’t have to show it physically. In fact, managing your physical response to the situation can often positively impact your mental response as well. Keep your breathing steady and deep. Sit or stand up straight, maintain eye contact and manage nervous ticks, like fidgety fingers and tapping toes. The more you look calm, cool and collected externally, the more you’ll feel that way internally.
5. Prepare in Advance
Feelings of intimidation can make you scatterbrained. If you’re sitting in front of your intimidating boss trying to explain something, for example, you may find yourself quickly tongue-tied or forgetful. You can avoid this problematic scenario by preparing in advance. Make notes of what you want to say and don’t be afraid to refer to them in the conversation. This will help keep you focused and may ease nerves along the way.
6. Speak Up (Thoughtfully)
Depending on how impactful the situation is, you may want to have a discussion with your boss. I suggest you do this during a time when there is relatively low pressure. The discussion should focus on better understanding what your boss needs from you. Don’t specifically say, “I’m intimidated by you!” Instead, ask for feedback on your performance and what you can do to improve. I’ve found that gaining clarity in this regard can help ease feelings of intimidation. Even if you don’t get a glowing review, you’ll at least know where you stand. Sometimes the mystery can be part of the problem.
7. Don’t Let It Cloud Your Thinking
Finally, don’t let your feelings of intimidation create overwhelming self-doubt. You were hired for a reason, and you have your job because you’re good at it. Your boss is a person like anyone else. They are imperfect. Often, these situations are not really about you at all. It’s about them and their need to feel powerful and superior. Don’t let your feelings of intimidation taint your perspective of your own abilities and contributions.
It’s also worthwhile noting that sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes it’s actually more about YOU than them. Your lack of confidence and self-worth may be contributing to your feelings of intimidation far more than anything they are doing. I realize this may be hard to fathom, but think about it. Perhaps you’re feeling uncertain about yourself and that’s being projected onto your boss. You might be seeing everything he or she does through an inaccurate lens.
Having an intimidating boss is not a recipe for guaranteed misery. You can improve the situation. Start with these 7 strategies and you may be surprised how things change for the better.