Ever had the sneaking suspicion that your boss is afraid of you? There are signs you can look for to determine if your boss really has a problem with you or if there’s another explanation. But sometimes, it can be difficult to tell exactly what they think. Although supervisors should ideally be professional and communicative at all times, we are all human and sometimes personal feelings creep into the workplace. An overworked, stressed manager may seem positive and friendly one day, only to appear to hate you the next. Others can be so cool and detached that they're always hard to read.
But what if your manager is actually scared of you? Is this necessarily a problem, and what can you do about it? Is there even a way to use it to your advantage? Check out these key signs your boss is afraid of you and suggestions for how to handle it.
An insecure boss may be afraid of being outdone by their subordinates. This can be an issue in particular if you have special skills or experience that your manager does not. A young, high-achieving recent graduate may be perceived as a “whiz kid” that the boss needs to look out for. If you are older and more experienced than your boss, they may find that difficult to handle, too.
A supportive boss should realize the achievements of their employees reflect well on them. When other colleagues and members of the management team are praising you, but your direct supervisor remains silent, something’s going on. Sometimes, there are differences of opinion, and your boss may just have a different approach from yours. But if they feel the need to put you down, this suggests they could be intimidated. If you've advanced rapidly or been given recognition by higher managers, your boss may be jealous.
When all feedback is negative and we're shown up, punished and never praised, this is sure to create an unhealthy work environment that's unlikely to bring out the best in anyone. A boss who's afraid of you might try to put you down, publicly if possible, and it may even feel as if they're deliberately trying to get you to quit. People experience fear when they feel a lack of control. A scared boss could try to counter their fears by micromanaging as much as possible. As always, watch to see how they behave toward your colleagues, and see if they display their insecurities with all the staff or if you seem to bring it out in them.
At the other extreme, they act as if you don’t exist. If they feel threatened and don’t know what to do about you, avoiding you altogether might seem the only response open to them. Withholding information makes your job more difficult and prevents you from having the chance to form a relationship with them. They probably want to avoid revealing their true feelings toward you, so keeping their distance is a defense mechanism.
Managers feel threatened when employees go over their heads. If they're aware of their poor attitude toward you, they may fear you reporting them to higher management. They may also feel afraid that you're angling for a promotion over them or might show them up by outperforming them in some areas. Consider the reasons behind your boss’s fears and insecurities. If your boss is underperforming in their own role, is swamped or is held in poor regard by their staff, they have reason to be afraid.
Rather than give you challenging tasks that give you the chance to shine, they want to keep you occupied with low-level jobs that are not likely to get you recognition or advancement. You may feel you are being undervalued and underutilized.
When you ascertain that your boss is afraid of you, start by finding support from your colleagues. If your boss is insecure, that's not your fault. Be wary of falling into the trap of trying to demean yourself to make your boss look good. This may deflate your boss’s insecurity in the short term, but in the long term, it could harm your own self-esteem, increase frustration and lower your standing at work.
However, you can take steps to allay their fears and improve their attitude toward you. Show your respect outwardly and consistently. Our supervisors are not obliged to automatically hold us in high regard. Usually, we have to earn their trust. Also, consider whether you may have, knowingly or unknowingly, said or done something to give them reason to be concerned. If this is the case, you have the power to reverse that by clarifying your position. Perhaps, for instance, you had issues with a previous supervisor or are known for being outspoken. None of this need be a problem, but you might need to be proactive in reassuring your current boss.
If it is a real problem that you feel is harming your career, your wellbeing or your ability to do your job, don't hesitate to stand up for yourself. When you feel it's appropriate, go to HR or a higher manager if possible. Confronting a supervisor head-on is a high-risk strategy since this will do nothing to make them less afraid and will likely stimulate defensiveness from them. Your boss is in a position of power, and that means they have something to lose. Alternatively, consider whether there's the opportunity to turn the situation to your advantage. This will depend on the exact circumstances and the reasons behind your boss’s fear, but perhaps you can rise to the extra challenge and use it as an opportunity to demonstrate your skills. If the situation seems irredeemable, ultimately, you may have to explore other possibilities. Look into requesting a transfer to another department, or if that's not an option, consider the pros and cons of finding a position at another company.
Victoria Smith-Douglas is transitioning to a freelance writing career using the strong skills in communication, organization and creativity that she has developed during her nine years of experience in education. She currently serves as an editorial fellow for Fairygodboss.
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