Thursday, November 01, 2012

"Your Boss is Intimidated By You" - Part 1

Research time lieutenants, agents in the field, and all varied and sorted types of economists!

Your beloved Captain has a problem and a problem that has been bothering him for quite some time.  Try as he might, he has had no success in figuring out a phenomenon he has regularly ran into in his life.  Normally if he sits down and ponders things he can figure it out, but not this one.  Worse still, he doesn't even have any theories or ideas that might explain this phenomenon which he can tender to his fine elite readership for approval or rejection.  No, he is just plain dead in the water when it comes to this one.  So riddle me this riddle me that Cappy Cappites:

"Are bosses really intimidated by some of their employees?

I ask because when I have rammed heads with management in the past (which has pretty much been always) my peers, friends, family and loved ones always say,

"Well, he/she is probably just intimidated by you.  They know you can do a better job than them and are smarter than them."

To this my original response was disbelief.  Early on I chalked it up to me not being a good enough employee.  I tried working harder, smarter, etc., but it never worked.  I still rammed heads.  Then I chalked it up to my brash personality.  They weren't intimidated, they just didn't like me.  So I became more demure and subservient, and of course that didn't work either.  Then once I took the red pill of employment and saw just how grossly incompetent, inept, and sometimes outright criminal gray hairs were in the banking industry, I chalked it up to the fact I was not playing along and refusing to be corrupt stooge they wanted me to be.  It wasn't intimidating, I just wasn't a team player.
But my ultimate reason for not believing in the "Intimidated Boss Syndrome" is that I couldn't see any of my bosses, no matter how incompetent or corrupt, being "intimidated" by me to the point they'd quarantine me or somehow impede my career our of fear I'd "usurp" them.  It just seemed to damn petty, even for them.

But, sure enough at the bar nary a couple days ago, when talking to a buddy of mine about my Wyoming gig he said, "Oh, he was just intimidated by you."  And the fact he said it so "matter of factly" has now made me hell bent to figure this out.

So Cappy Cappites, lets see if we can with our communal SEAG (TM) brain power answer a couple questions.

1.  Does such a phenomenon exist?  I'm sure SOME boss SOMEWHERE has been intimidated by an underling in the history of the world.  But is this a COMMON phenomenon you believe exists?

2.  WE NEED PROOF.  Stories, observations, epiphanies, anecdotes, something you can point to and say, "Yes, see there!  There it is!  That boss is intimidated by his underling and here's how you can tell."  Not stories of "my boss sucks and here's why."  I need "S/he displayed this odd behavior or did something that would suggest they were intimidated."  Hell, insider stories of people who know who are bosses confiding in you their employees intimidate them.  And I'd be curious if this is more common with women than men (though my money is on the men if this proves to be true).

3.  I would also like to see a working psychological model or explanation as to why this is.  What is the psychology, what are the symptoms, what are the traits and behaviors of intimidated bosses?  What do they do and say and why do they say it so we know they're intimidated.

I KNOW there is something there.  It's too uncanny  that this keeps getting cited, not just in my experiences, but others.  I want the "Intimidated Boss Phenomenon" ID'd and explained.

ht for info and insight


Alexander said...

It seems unlikely to me that a social hierarchy where every rung was intimidated by the ones below it would survive. Are we to assume that the boss's boss is intimidated by him? That the CEO is terrified of everyone else in the company? Generally speaking, if person A is intimidated by person B and person B *knows* this is the case, person A won't hold a position of power over person B for very long.

In conclusion: feel-good bullshit.

If anything, the concern is our political and business masters being absolutely convinced they know best in all circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Sure, it exists, but you're discounting the main reason: You have entirely different goals than most bosses. 99% of the time, you're working cross-purpose to their ambitions.

Specifically, you want to FINISH a job, by effectively pushing toward results, and then move on to the next thing. Bosses are motivated to KEEP their jobs, apart from any other accomplishment.

Effectiveness is less relevant than ideology, these days. Sorry, but it's true, due to our socializing, deteriorating business environment.

Now, a boss will respond immediately to a political threat, but will ignore irrelevant individuals who drearily grind away at the work. You don't matter, you're just annoying. Any demonstrated competence just irritates and distracts them; they can't fathom, let alone equal it.

I've been on both sides of the management desk, and I constantly evaluate everyone around me, identifying the best potential employees. Almost without fail, they are ignored by management, due to their lack of political importance.

No one likes a useless distraction. Capabilities are, at best, irrelevant and vaguely intimidating. In the extreme, a solid worker presents a potential threat to the status quo.

Anonymous said...

offer a reward for proof and data. let the market work.

Aeoli Pera said...

Intimidation implies a threat, and there is no threat. Sure, it's possible your boss's boss will replace him with you, but that never actually happens.

I think this explanation is papering over something else. And it must be something dirty and dark.

My best guess is a Freudian one: they want to be dominant over you, and there's no legitimate outlet (i.e. some kind of competence). So it comes out in unhealthy ways.

Lordsomber said...

Peter Principle, Dunning-Kruger Effect -- there are many, see my link. (sorry, I think you linked this before.)

The ones who seem to be intimidated are usually ones that are "parachuted" in, and not ones who've worked up through the ranks.

Steffen said...

This reminds me of the Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

Two kinds of individuals work in any organization. Type one is loyal to the purpose of the organization. Type two is loyal to the organization itself, but not to its purpose.

Type two tends to grow the organization into a little kingdom of cubible dwellers around their own authority. Type ones are unwelcome in the clubhouse.

PeppermintPanda said...

I would actually argue that it is the opposite of intimidation ...

One of the distinctions I have seen between good bosses and bad bosses is their opinion of their subordinates. Good bosses value the education, experience, and intelligence of their subordinates and treat them well while bad bosses tend to see their subordinates as little more than trained monkeys.

A good boss takes advice from their subordinates and evaluates it and may make changes based on it; and a bad boss discounts it outright because it has been given to them by a trained monkey. A good boss looks to keep their high performing employees happy because they're difficult to replace while a bad boss dismisses the performance of a good employee because "how difficult could it be if a monkey is doing it?"

For a boss to be intimidated by you they would have to see value in what you are doing and that is not a characteristic of the kind of bosses you describe.

lelnet said...

It's happened to me. But far more often, conflict with the boss has ultimately come down to some combination of:

1. Agency paradox
2. He's being a dick
3. I'm being a dick (hey, being unwilling to admit the _possibility_ that you were being a dick is PROOF that you were being a dick, and still are)

But mostly the agency paradox. I care about the work, and honestly don't give a tinker's damn about some middle-manager's empire building. Middle managers who spend their lives obsessing over empire building tend to feel differently. Ergo, conflict.

Given that, I've never needed to assume that the boss is intimidated by me.

Unknown said...

Why would it not be common? If you are good at your job, you could attract the notice of your boss' supervisors, and be promoted right past him. Or you could be promoted to replace him. That's a threat.

One thing to observe: Does the boss only "dislike" people who are close enough below him to be a threat to his position? Does he then treat them like the assets they are, when he has been promoted far enough above them, that they make his department look good without eclipsing HIM?

Anonymous said...

I think your boss simply doesn't like you. Personally I have never had a boss I liked and the feeling has been mutual. I have a problem with authority and I reckon you do too. Your boss will pick up on your lack of brownnosing vibes and will understand that you and he are fundamentally different.
Bosses are without fail 100% dedicated to the company, dedicated in an uncritical way. They are dedicated to the hierarchy and their own place in it and their monthly paycheck. You I suspect are dedicated to doing a good job, finding better solutions and looking to eliminate inefficiency which is a totally different kind of dedication.
Bosses and underlings might as well be from different planets...

Carnivore said...

Different industries/fields operate differently. My background is STEM, mainly working for large corporations. As an engineer, I've worked for managers who were almost technically incompetent and only managed people/schedules; managers who were on a par with me technically and managers who were above me, because I was new to a particular application which they had worked with previously.

Have to honestly say that the boss being intimidated by me was never a problem probably because there was never a situation about competing for a position. Always made it clear that my interest was on the technical track; absolutely no desire to get into management.

The best managers I've had were male; did not have many female managers, but the ones I did have were OK.

Holding a grudge or blacklisting people was a trait I only saw in female managers until recently; two male managers I know (but luckily don't work for) have this bad habit.

Anonymous said...

There is a dying Human Resources - Organization Model Freudian Tavistock school called Requisite Organization.

Try looking around this dude's website. It's probably the best single source that deals with these types of issues all the time. Do some digging for insight.

Peace Out Dudes

Rachel & Robert said...

Office politics explains a lot. At some point, every employee (you OR your boss) has a moment where their neck is the one that is on the block for something, no matter how good you are. In such a situation, young, ambitious employees can be dangerous to their managers. In other words, it's not intimidation per se, but it IS a dog eat dog world, and smart people are aware of that. A little effort to build some mutual trust can go a long way (obviously won't help if one IS just being a dick). In the book, "Rising Through the Ranks", author Mike Wynn relates an anecdote where he had that exact issue with a ranking officer. It was resolved by communicating/demonstrating that he wasn't gunning for his bosses job, but was instead focused on the success of their mutual mission.

Aeoli Pera said...

NB: All of the responses have been different. Reasonable, but different.

It's like when you ask 10 different people what college is for.

Anonymous said...

(Cliff Arroyo)

Occasionally a boss can feel threated by an employee for sure. But IME that happens far less often than people think it does.

Reading the post I had a weird deja vu feeling. The post really reminded me of the 'men are intimidated by strong women' complaints from future cat ladies or the 'women give useless dating advice to men' complaints by people like you. Now the former is largely false and the latter basically true but they're both useful in figuring out what might be going on.

In other words, you're approaching this from the wrong angle, as an employee you're asking other employees why their bosses don't like you (and they're feeding you a line to make you feel good about yourself) when you should be trying to see it from the boss's point of view.

The unpleasant truth is probably two part: Your boss probably doesn't like your attitude (rightly or wrongly) and you're (maybe) not as good an employee as you think you are.

I'll assume that your writing and videos are an accurate portrayal of the 'real' you and that's similar to how you act on the job. I, for one, would dread having a high pitched voice guy with a snarky teenage "I'm smarter than everybody else" attitude working for me. It wouldn't intimidate me, it would irritate the hell out of me that you think you know better what I've told you to do than I do.

Some things that most people never consider:

Your boss is under a lot of pressures that you don't know much about. One of those pressures is time pressure so they don't have the time to explain every detail of why they want you to do something.

Your boss is privy to information that you are not (and should not) be privy to. This also informs of a lot of their behavior and the particular demands they make.

Your boss most certainly knows that some of the routine procedures at work are stupid but changing them is not possible for a variety of reasons (some of which are also stupid and some of which aren't).

The ability to take and carry out orders is a lot harder than most people realize (which is why so many people are so bad at it) and a lot more valuable than most people realize.

Your boss is not looking for a troubleshooter (unless that's specifically what you were hired to do).

Trying to be a troubleshooter when you've been hired to carry out orders is _not_ generally the sign of a good employee. There are times when suggestions can be made on how to improve things but they must be timed carefully. When you've been told to do X is _not_ the time to offer alternates or explain how your time could be better spent doing Y.

If you want to understand office politics and how the workplace really works you should absolutely buy and read Michael Korda's "Power! How to get it, how to use it"

It's very dated in places but I've seen the scenarios and principles he described play out again and again. It's not inspirational and not meant as a 'how to' book (that part is more a satire than anything else) but it's got a lot of a great descriptions about how things really work (and don't work) in the 9 to 5 world.

Bill Powell said...

Thanks Captain for the linkage. Damn, you had to dig far back in my archives to find that one but I'm glad you did. Maybe I need to start recycling some of those posts.

Ryan said...

I bet this happens a lot in professional sports. Some real successful college coach gets brought in to be the defensive coordinator at a struggling NFL team. The head coach would see the writing on the wall and maybe not be too cooperative.

Aynsley said...

It honestly depends on the boss. My last supervisor got the supervisor position by the skin of his teeth and was ridiculously insecure about it. We were not allowed to go above or outside of him for any company problems or questions. One of the techs who had been there before he was promoted had a problem with how he handled something once. She went over his head about it, and was screamed at, written up, and threatened with being fired if she ever did it again. He refused to give anyone credit for work they had done individually, and took credit for leading "the team" to any accomplishments we managed. We were strictly forbidden from discussing our department's business with anyone outside the department, which got me in trouble when one of the higher-ups came in with questions. We were also actively discouraged from even talking to anyone outside our department. Basically, the guy was a dick.

Fast forward to new job: my direct supervisor is the owner of the company. He is the opposite of intimidated, because instead of seeing me as the person his boss will replace him with in three years, he sees me as a valuable resource that saves him a lot of money. I am almost pampered at this job (which is a nice change), and while there is someone in the office who likes to cause trouble, she has gotten her neck stepped on a few times for it.

My advice: if you're a standout, smaller companies, with a very small management structure are the way to go. At least until you build up enough of a reputation in your field to go directly into a high-level position at someplace bigger.

wavevector said...

It's the Emperor's Clothes effect. Most organizations operate in a fictitious reality composed of pretty lies. To get into and succeed in management you have to buy into those lies and accept the fictions as truth.

You are the type of man who exposes the pretty lies to the harsh glare of reality. This undermines the belief system of your managers. This is very threatening in an existential way. So hell yes you are intimidating.

There are two options for you:

1) Learn to be a good fiction writer and actor, and play along with the farce.

2) Find one of those rare companies run by people with a clear view of reality.

I've been in management in companies living in such alternative realities, and the strain of maintaining the fiction was too much in the long run. I was very fortunate to stumble into a job at a reality based company. Not coincidentally, it is also the most profitable company in its sector.

Anonymous said...

My boss is younger by almost 30 years, is a male while I am a female and I have been in this business almost 40 years while he only maybe 8. It is a family owned business and he is taking over because his parents are retiring. He is very good at what he does but every time I make a suggestion on how to improve on a problem he shuts it down and he keeps telling me I think too much like an owner(which I was) than an employee. He was happier when he thought I knew nothing. I think that it threatens him because it makes he doubt what he is saying. Instead of uses my knowledge he would rather struggle through the problems. I feel my only solution is to keep quiet and watch him make mistakes?

Anonymous said...

I was told as an employer from another boss that my boss finds me intimidating saying one min im ok then the next un not bullshit all it is i complained about a supervisors who was talking to us like a piece if shit i complained to my manager then two higher manager nothing was done but a little thing i get pulled in the office is that bullying? Then i was told to be a bit softer towards my boss who is a young women.

Kayleigh said...

I've always got on pretty well with my past bosses/managers (still in touch with a couple), but in a very weird situation with my current supervisor. He acts really scared around me (avoids eye contact, fiddles with things, shakes, stutters, blushes, etc) and I have no idea what the hell I'm supposed to do. I'm not a threatening person at all (petite, dress very feminine, always try to smile, laugh and be friendly) and I'm not aspiring to take his job as I'm studying another field entirely. To make it worse, I have a mild form of autism and find social things VERY difficult to understand anyway. His behaviour is really off-putting. It makes me nervous sometimes, as I'm constantly questioning my own behaviour and checking if I'm sounding angry or rude or something! I get on with my other boss really well and they (and everyone else I work with) are very relaxed around me. I've asked some of my colleagues (those who are closer to me) to point out if I am ever doing anything that could be intimidating so I know, but they say I am behaving okay. So it seems like it is a problem he has rather than me, it's still a really frustrating situation to feel like you are upsetting another person!

fitcity101 said...

I know exactly what you are talking about. I am a hard working female and in my experience, when ever I work under a women that has insecurities that totally feel intimidated by me. I have worked for confident strong women and they usually become my best friend. I have had this type of problem with a gay colleague as well. Basically, I am a very confidant women that is very outgoing and work great with the public. In my present job, my female boss, is always trying to find any little thing to address me on, she doesn't like that I have been at the job for one month and I have learned 60 percent of my customer names, when she has worked as the manager and has not taken the time to learn names. I am big into customer service, and have learned that addressing people by the name is your best asset. I am always on time and busy 100 percent of the day. I have told my boss, that I am there to help her, I see what needs to be done and I do it as well as I ask her what she needs done and I do it. I have come to the conclusion that this female boss just doesn't like my confidence. It seems that the harder I work the more she is threatened by me. I just want to have a none threatening work environment, and enjoy my job. I don't want to be an intimidation to anyone. It is so frustrating.

Anonymous said...

My female manager has been bullied by women on my team and by women on other teams. She is very nice helpful and friendly, however any women with stronger personalities have easily shouted her down and left her looking very weak. She wouldn't do anything about it as she's afraid of them and I don't think she suspects anyone else has noticed it. I do analyse her around other people and she appears to get a lot of abuse for example from people lower in rank to her if our team makes a mistake but when it comes to other teams making a mistake she's reluctant to raise it with their manager. Sometimes its frustrating how weak she can be.

Anonymous said...

My female manager has been bullied by women on my team and by women on other teams. She is very nice helpful and friendly, however any women with stronger personalities have easily shouted her down and left her looking very weak. She wouldn't do anything about it as she's afraid of them and I don't think she suspects anyone else has noticed it. I do analyse her around other people and she appears to get a lot of abuse for example from people lower in rank to her if our team makes a mistake but when it comes to other teams making a mistake she's reluctant to raise it with their manager. Sometimes its frustrating how weak she can be.

Unknown said...

Here are a few personal examples.

I had a situation where my boss investigated a major problem with a project and eventually ended-up blaming the customer after he couldn't figure it out. Another manager asked me to investigate this problem, and I found and corrected the issue in one afternoon. I didn't see my boss for 3 days after that. Drinking Binge?

I came across a drawing in some system documentation that conflicted with the way I was told by my boss the system worked. We were debugging a problem on the system together one day, and I mentioned the diagram I saw in the documentation and asked if this could be true. The response I got from this...
Boss: "You don't believe everything you read in the system documentation, do you? No, the system doesn't work like that."
Me: "Are you absolutely sure about that?"
Me: "Will you humor me and just try changing this to see if it works?"
Boss: "No, I'm not going to waste my time trying something that I know isn't going to work."

My Bosses's arrogance kind-of burned me that day, so I contacted a support engineer for the system to get their opinion on the matter because my boss obviously wasn't going to listen to anything I had to say about it.

As it turned out, The support engineer confirmed I was correct, and I forwarded his the email to my boss. The boss disappeared for a few days again, then came into my office one morning and started ranting about how they (the company who manufactures the system) changed that and it used to not be that way; Yeah right.

There were many other occasions where I'd stumble onto a major problem, sometimes solve it on my own, then face an incredible amount of hostility (not valid criticism, which I would have accepted) when I mentioned the problem and soluion to my boss.

After a while, my boss started to drastically undercut the time I was budgeted for to do my parts of projects and throw in ridiculous requirements without consulting me on how much time I estimated my part of the project would require. Talk about being setup to fail!

I had several talks with my boss about certain requirements on a few projects and asked where the requirements were coming from. I usually just got told in a very demeaning way from my boss "I can do that in (X) hours", and my original question was never answered.

The complicating project requirements were almost always a result of my bosses oversight/bad-assumption in the project quote, or a desire to do some R&D (experimentation) on the customer's dime.

It got to the point where my boss was deliberately censoring project information from me and just throwing ridiculous stuff over the wall. I was never asked to "look-into" anything again.

Once my boss outright asked me "SO, DO YOU THINK YOU ARE SMARTER THAN ME?" Meanwhile I was thinking to myself... You said it, I didn't buddy.

Another time when I asked if I could please explain the details of the problem I was seeing, my boss said "NO YOU CAN'T!" And went on a rant about how I was wasting time on stuff that wasn't important. This problem WAS THE CAUSE of a lot of wasted time and effort across multiple projects and I felt it needed to be addressed.

I believe some people's ego's are so large that they cannot accept any criticism, and will view anyone who identifies a problem as a direct threat. So I'd say I have pretty strong evidence that my boss was intimidated by me at work.

Needless to say, I left that company for greener pastures.

Anonymous said...

avoids eye contact when she pops her head into my cubicle for a quick hello (however, there is good eye contact in one-on-one meetings);
body posture is generally perpendicular to mine;
uses curt words;
very short conversations that hint towards "I'm busy.";
no face-time with me but will give one other colleague lots of time talking and pleasantries;
I get no pleasantries;
clenched jaw;
face turns red;
I share my cubicle space with one other colleague, and my boss almost always sits on my colleague's side and directs most of her speech to my other colleague: I just look at the back of her head and try to interject (the conversations do include me);
verbalizes doubts towards me (I get good 3rd party reviews but she'll say "...if you're struggling with this easy assignment" but it's just a low-priority assignment;
no personal interest displaced.

Elistra said...


From how you describe yourself (petite, dress very feminine, always try to smile, laugh and be friendly), you're probably very attractive.

Yes, the behavior of your boss (avoids eye contact, fiddles with things, shakes, stutters, blushes, etc) does indicate anxiety/nervousness, but it might not be because he feels threatened by you professionally.

It might be because he ... has developed feelings for you that extend beyond the professionalism of the workplace, to put it delicately... and doesn't know what to do about it or how to cope with it.

Susan said...

Well, I want to say that most of my bosses have liked me. I catch on really fast, am good at meeting deadlines, dependable and accurate. This is according to my bosses. Recently, I have had two bosses that tell me. I catch on fast and I am doing great. Though for some strange reason are picking apart my work looking for mistakes. They can not find any. These two particularly bosses both treated me the same way and I have no idea why. No other bosses ever have. The nitpicked my work to death. Complaining about such things as exploding paperclips. Complaining I work to fast yet I had no mistakes. What is up with this. They needle me to death over things that are not mistakes and do not matter. I don't know what I am going to do if I get another boss like these two. They say I do a good job and I catch on fast. This is something all my other bosses liked. They then start complaining I work to fast or used the wrong size paperclip and get rid of me. Nothing happens and no matter how much I offer my help or how good of job I do matters. They tell me I am doing good or they are pleased. Then start needling me and nitpicking and get rid of me for not being a good fit. Of course I am a good fit. I have 20 years of experience and I am going to school for this as well. I get along with everyone. It is not normal. I have never had any bosses act this way. I never heard of bosses having a problem with people that work fast. What is up with this?

Wildcats said...

It may not be common, but it absolutely does exist. As a mid/late career change I joined a nonprofit organization in development from a much more competitive commission paying for-profit industry. I had 2 managers between myself and the president at the new job.

By applying 25 years of experience in the for profit world I had a pipeline ready to produce 14% of the organizations endowment after 12 months. I didn't ask for a raise or ask for the limelight. I just did my thing and was on track to do in 7 years what it had taken the organization 113 years to amass.

I got called into a meeting by my 2 superiors and put on a 90 performance plan because I had not provided notes on my sales calls that were "detailed enough". Then they reassigned my duties and took over my existing pipeline. They presented my work as their own to the president.

Two months later, a colleague gave me a copy of a handwritten note from one boss to the other that said "He appears to have more influence than either of us. Not good with budget & staffing conference in two weeks."

That actually happened.