I am the operations lead for a region in a global manufacturing company. I oversee physical plants and offices, and work closely with HR around issues of safety and compliance and supply chain. You name it, most problems end up on my desk. I manage four teams that report to me.
I am direct, no nonsense, and very matter-of-fact. My strength is that I am a creative problem solver and I get things done. I am not unfriendly per se, but no one would call me warm and fuzzy.
My boss, the EVP of Operations who reports directly to the CEO, is grooming his successor and I know he wants it to be me. I am single and have no kids. It would be easy for me to relocate to HQ and I know I can do the job.
Here is the challenge: I have been told, and others have given feedback about me, that I am intimidating. I have heard it my whole life. I’ve tried to be “nice,” but I don’t believe it has made much of a difference. I don’t get it.
The part that really bugs me is that I know if I were a man, this simply wouldn’t be an issue. Most of the people I work with are men and I suspect this is just straight-up sexism. What can I do about this?
Oh, I hear you, my friend. You are probably right about the gender thing. Sexism is probably a strong word to use at this point because, so far, it seems you have not suffered from active discrimination. But you are suffering from perceptions governed by deeply ingrained cultural norms.
It is simply true that when people feel intimidated by a male boss, it feels normal to them, but when the boss is a female, it somehow feels wrong. Intimidating men are Alphas. Intimidating women are—well, you fill in the blank. There are a few tactics you can try to reduce that perception, but ultimately you are still going to be you and you are still going to be female—and there is very little you can do to change either of those things. I will share a couple of tips in a moment.
First things first. You need to ask your boss how important this feedback is and how much effort he thinks you need to put into changing your MO to reduce the intimidating impact you have on others. You may be over-focusing on it. You need to find out if it will be a deal breaker when it comes to your promotion—and you should try to find out exactly what you do that makes people feel intimidated by you. It may be something you are completely unaware of. Perhaps you interrupt people or cut people off if you disagree with what they are saying. Maybe you roll your eyes when someone says something you think is stupid. Perhaps you use subtle language that telegraphs your judgment of others. Or maybe you do none of these things. But if there are one or two specific little things you can stop doing, it will make it easier for you to choose how to change.
Here are some small things you might think about doing to try to reduce your intimidation factor.
- My experience of females who get this kind of feedback is that it isn’t as much that you are intimidating as it is that there are people out there who are easily intimidated. You probably have a lot of energy and can be laser-focused on the matter at hand to the exclusion of paying attention to the people around you. So spend some time noticing the people you work with, their personalities, and their communication styles. Both men and women expect women to be more interested in the details of their lives. Is this fair? No, it is not. But it is the reality, so in your no-nonsense way, get over it. The more you can learn about what is important to your people—kids, sports, cooking, dogs—and connect with them over those topics, the more they will warm up to you. This may be boring to you, but think of it as part of your job. Spending five minutes before launching into problem solving to ask people how their weekend was, how their kid is who got Covid, or how the soccer game went goes a long way toward making you a little more human. It will be a stretch for you, but if you breathe and listen, you can do it.
- Remember that you came wired with a force field around you. People feel it when you walk into a room. When working with a team, especially with people who don’t know you yet, you can make yourself a little bit more accessible by simply explaining: “I move very quickly and tend to focus on solving problems and getting things done. It isn’t personal, and if I move too fast, you should let me know. I am always interested in what you have to say. And though I may seem stern, I am fair and will always tell you the truth.”
- I hate to say it, but I have learned this one the hard way. This is especially true in the US, but it is also universal, and I have worked with men on this, too: Smile. Smile when you greet people. If you are happy to see people, tell your face. Smile when you are listening to people—not a big fat smile, but not the frown you probably wear when you are listening for problems and your wheels are turning a mile a minute. Thank people for their hard work, acknowledge them for a job well done, and smile when you deliver the message. It is a tiny thing and will be a new habit, but it will probably make the biggest difference.
- Watch your language and your sense of humor. I once worked with a female leader who, upon hearing about a big mistake, would say things like “Who did that? Heads will roll,” and “I need to know what throats to choke.” She was always (kind of) kidding, but people were terrified of her and would not escalate problems appropriately. Her entire unit was chaos.
It sounds like you run a tight ship, and your region probably runs like a well-oiled machine. The key is to remember that your people are not simply cogs in that machine.
Part of being a senior leader is knowing how to bring out the best in people and to make them trust that you care about them and have their backs. There is an interesting thought piece that just came out about the disastrous impact Elon Musk is having at Twitter and how out of touch he is with the expectations of modern leaders. The most important assets of any of today’s companies are its people. People stay with companies when they feel like they matter. It is really that simple.
So you can be the smartest person in the room, and as direct and no-nonsense as you are, while still sending the message that you care about each person you are working with. You will probably still be intimidating to some because of your exceptional competence. But at least people will know you are on their side and are using your superpowers for good.
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.
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