People Find You Physically Menacing? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a senior executive in a big global company. I am not an American, but it is an American company. With each rise I achieve in the ranks here, the more I realize just how not-American I am.

Here’s my problem. I am a large person physically—I was an athlete in my school days. Recently, I was called into a meeting with HR during which I was told that people find me physically aggressive. Also, someone reported that I point when I am talking and it feels to them like I am pointing a gun.

I reported this to my wife and she laughed and said, “Oh yeah, the finger gun, we take bets on whether any given topic at the dinner table will bring it out!”

I am a perfectly decent and nice guy, and I find this upsetting. I don’t know what to do. I think the HR lady had some recommendations but I don’t remember a word she said after the “finger gun” thing. Help?

Finger Gun

Dear Finger Gun,

You will forgive me for smiling. If you weren’t a perfectly decent and nice guy, you wouldn’t be so upset. But because you are, the good news is that it won’t be that hard for you to change people’s perceptions.

I have heard “finger gun” before, believe it or not. A lot of leaders have habits they are unaware of that undermine their ability to connect with people—raising their voice, pounding the table, moving quickly, or slamming doors. In some cultures, that kind of physicality seems totally normal, but in the western corporate world it causes people to go into fight-or-flight mode.

The problem with being the boss is that everything you do is under a microscope and has a multiplied effect. I worked with one client whose lifelong trademark eyerolling was considered hilarious until he was the big boss, and then his employees experienced it like a slap across the face. I have lost count of the clients, both men and women, who have taught themselves how to smile so they wouldn’t be so scary.

You have obviously been effective enough to rise in the ranks, so don’t go second guessing everything you are doing. You must be doing some things right. It is normal for people to ascend to senior levels only to find out that what has been working for them up to this point isn’t going to work at this new level. Marshall Goldsmith wrote a book about it: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There—the title says it all.

Perhaps you could go back and talk to your HR lady, now that you are calm enough to hear what she has to say. She probably has some good ideas. Here are mine:

It sounds like what we are dealing with here is physical self-awareness. The emotional intelligence experts would say that you need to increase your awareness of the effect you have on others and then modulate your behavior if it isn’t the effect you want. As a leader, you may want to increase motivation in your people and you are finding out that physical intimidation—real or perceived—doesn’t accomplish that. So, what do you do? Curbing your physical habits would be a good start. The science of motivation is extremely advanced now. I would recommend Susan Fowler’s book Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work and What Does. Susan says that people find their sweet spot when they have the right amount of autonomy, relatedness, and competence. I would submit that your physical habits decrease the sense of relatedness your people have with you, and as a result they are not motivated to go the extra mile for you.

To start managing your physical habits, I would recommend a four-step approach. “Four steps,” you say? “Nonsense, I just need to be disciplined and get to it.” Well, maybe, but you will have a much better result if you approach this thoughtfully and deliberately.

  1. Observe how other respected and effective senior executives manage their physicality. Notice how they move, sit, stand, and manage the space in informal groupings. Pay attention to how these people make their point when they feel strongly about it. Notice what these folks do in situations where you would normally pull out that terrifying finger. This will be quite entertaining and educational. You will have an opportunity to also observe behavior that isn’t effective, so be sure to weed that from your repertoire. While you are observing others, also observe yourself. Notice what you do naturally that can be effective and what you do that tends to cause alarm in others.
  2. Begin a practice that helps you to calm down. A cocktail at the end of the day doesn’t count, sorry. Do yoga, tai chi, qigong, or walk around the block breathing deeply. Meditate for six minutes a day—there are about five million free apps for this. Sit quietly, breathing in for five counts and then out for five counts. If you Google breathing exercises you will find many extremely easy and effective variations. Choose something. Anything. Nipping back habits is stressful—especially habits you engage in when under stress—but you have to find ways to manage it.
  3. Start practicing new physical moves in safe environments. Try stuff out with your family. It sounds like they have your number, and also your best interests at heart. They may tease you mercilessly, but taking yourself a little less seriously will only improve things right now.
  4. Try your new stuff out at work. The test will be when there is stress, such as a looming deadline, a costly mistake, an unhappy customer…whatever. Your finger will itch. You will want to do all of the things you normally do to feel powerful and in control. So you’d better have your practice to lean on. Breathe. Feel your feet. Keep your hands folded loosely on your lap. Keep your face free of tension.

You can do it, FG, because it matters to your long-term success—which you obviously care a lot about. You will notice a difference very quickly, which will be motivating. Breathe.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

Leave a Reply