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Leaders Who Intimidate How to change an intimidation style By Chip R. Bell By the time Jane had gotten ten feet from her boss’ office, she was in tears. She had just completed presenting the preliminary results of a project she had worked on for weeks. It was by no means the final version. But, her boss requested an early heads up on the findings that would be in her final project report. Jane was a rising star with a solid reputation for her deep acumen and enormous talent. “What did he do that made you so upset,” a colleague asked Jane in the ladies room as she was regaining her composure. “I really don’t know,” Jane replied. “He just makes me feel so stupid, like I am a total novice. It seems no matter how hard I try, he’s always finding something wrong.” Jane had just been the victim of her intimidating boss. When Jane’s friend (and a peer of her boss) approached him on what he had done to upset Jane, he seemed clueless about how his actions could have upset Jane. He dismissed her emotional reaction by waving his hand in a dismissive gesture. “She’ll just have to get tougher,” he said bluntly. “If she can’t stand the heat, maybe she needs to get out of the kitchen!” We all know how to spot blatant intimidation—like the type famed basketball coaches Bobby Knight at Indiana and Mike Rice at Rutgers used courtside or the kind CEO’s Steve Jobs and Jack Welch reportedly used in staff meetings. It is generally loud, embarrassing and often viewed as downright mean. It is typically in excess of what is needed to get the desired result. Unfortunately, high producers are given a wide berth. Yet, even a dime store psychologist knows the leader’s bullying behavior comes from deep-seated anger and takes a toll on the organization. But, intimidation need not be blatant to leave an emotional scar. Subtle intimidation can be as emotionally debilitating to the recipient, particularly for employees who are new, lower on the chain of command, or somewhat emotionally insecure. In a phrase, subtle intimidation looks like stern judgment that communicates disapproval. Its outward signs are many: furrowed brow, sarcasm, a demeaning tone, ignoring someone trying to make a point, quickness to criticize or blame, overuse of the symbols of authority, a cold demeanor, gestures that signal high control, nitpicking, pessimism and the complete absence of expressed joy except around members of the leader’s inner sanctum. Intimidating behavior, even the more subtle--passive-aggressive form--can rob an organization of the best in people. It can create an atmosphere of obedience, not one of openness; compliance, not commitment. Under an intimidating leader, subordinates avoid contact that could result in conflict, hide errors and withhold key facts. They waste valuable time over preparing and unnecessarily involving others solely as a way to spread protection among the views of many. Subordinate energy that should be directed at performance is spent on the lookout for leader uproar. It can squelch innovation, ingenuity and initiative sole out of the fear of error. It can fuel gossip as subordinates 51 leadership excellence essentials presented by HR.com | 04.2014


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