Managers, You’re More Intimidating Than You Think

By Megan Reitz and John Higgins
September 9, 2019

Most of us managers believe we’re approachable to our employees. In a survey we conducted with 4,000 professionals, two-thirds reported they are never or rarely seen as scary by junior people.

We’re even more convinced that we’re approachable to those who are our hierarchical equals or superiors. Asked whether their peers and their bosses would find them scary, 75% of respondents said it was extremely unlikely in the case of their peers and 80% said the same in the case of their bosses.

woman-801872_960_720Yet we know from our other research conducted in the last five years that many people think twice before speaking up in organizations because they find colleagues intimidating. Other research shows that managers in particular need to accept that people see them as much scarier than they realize — and that it’s hurting their businesses.

Of course, there are times when managers might want to be perceived as scary, such as when they are in a contested negotiation or addressing behavior that’s unacceptable. But most of the time, managers need to be approachable. If employees are afraid to speak up, engagement suffers, learning moments go unrecognized, misconduct goes unquestioned and innovations go unrealized.


Start by understanding what it is that makes you scary to others. It’s often hard for managers to see how intimidating they are because what is considered scary is subjective.

Knowing your labels is a way to understand what makes you scary to others. Those labels might be job titles, such as “boss,” “head of human resources” or “CEO.” They can also be attributes such as “tall,” “confident” or “high-potential,” which often convey a certain level of authority. The higher the status of your labels, the more others worry about what you think of them and try to avoid upsetting you. Your scariness, as others see it, acts as a deterrent, making others hesitate before speaking up.

What’s more, because your labels mean that you are in a relatively privileged position, you probably find it easier to speak up. Due to “advantage blindness” — a bias in which those of us in privileged positions assume others experience a situation like we do — we can’t imagine that others might find it difficult to speak up. According to our recent survey, as managers become more senior, they find it easier to speak up because they expect positive consequences. At the same time, their experiences of personal confidence mean they often forget what it is like to be in a more junior role, where the downsides of speaking up are more apparent.

Consider the labels that apply to you. What intimidation factors comes with your professional title? What attributes do you have — like height or confidence — that can suggest power and authority? Who might find them intimidating?

Failing to consider these questions means you are likely to keep interacting with others in the same way. Becoming aware of the consequences of perceived differences in authority allows you to adjust the way you relate to others. Here are steps for doing so.


As mammals, we are wired to make meaning from the gestures of others, and without knowing it, managers often send nonverbal “shut up” signals rather than “speak up” ones.

Understand what your facial tics and expressions are communicating from moment to moment. Nancy Kline, the author of “Time to Think,” calls this “knowing your face.” When you’re thinking deeply you might tend to frown, which can be readily interpreted as disapproval through the eyes of others, especially those who are more junior than you. You might have a smile that appears to others as more of a smirk. Perhaps you suffer from “angry resting face.”

Becoming aware of these unintentional expressions requires you to be present and focused in your interactions. Minimize distractions when you speak with others so that you can consider what message you’re really sending. Make it your goal to encourage, support and learn from the other person.


How did you respond the last time someone challenged you?

If you are in a powerful role, others will examine your responses closely. Reacting negatively to being challenged — with overt anger or dismissal — means that you’ll be challenged less often in the future. Insisting that people must come to you with solutions rather than problems will mean that some may stay silent when the problem they’ve noticed is particularly complex. And automatically asking someone to lead the project around any new idea they bring to you will mean that others will think twice before suggesting a creative idea.

One of us (Megan Reitz) recently worked with a leadership team that had been through a restructuring experience with multiple layoffs. Though the CEO wanted the team to move on and turn to the future, it quickly became clear that team members still felt betrayed and traumatized by how they experienced the layoffs. But when one team member expressed their negative feelings about it, the CEO dismissed them angrily. In a subsequent conversation with the team, it became clear that his reaction made it less likely that employees would freely express their thoughts and ideas in the future.

Aim to create a culture of psychological safety where employees can be honest about bad news. Consider how you usually respond to bad news or an opinion that’s different from yours. Could that response be deterring others from speaking up?


Some managers think that people will open up to them if they just say that they always welcome feedback. However, the scarier you seem to others, the less likely anyone will approach you with their thoughts or criticisms. Wise leaders understand this and recognize that they need to be more direct when inviting feedback.

This means asking more specific questions such as, “What would be one key thing I could change in order to become even more approachable?”

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Management

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