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Are You a Scary Boss?
(This article originally appeared in Computerworld USA and Computerworld Australia.)
I'll never forget the first time I learned that one of my subordinates was afraid
of me. A talented young man, probably 26, had just left my office after explaining
to me how happy he was with his current project. My assistant came in and told me
that he had spent the 20 minutes prior to our appointment complaining to her about
how terrible his project was and how miserable he felt.
I was absolutely incredulous. Why would he lie to me? What was the point? I was the
one person who could help him, if only he asked for help. I asked my assistant, "Why
he would do that?"
"He's afraid of you," she said matter-of-factly. The words hung there in the air
for a minute as I tried to absorb their meaning. Someone was afraid of me -- of me.
It was unfathomable.
It certainly didn't fit my self-image. I was 27, short, introverted, quiet and intimidated
by my new job managing 50 people, mostly older than me. What's to be afraid of? It
seemed more plausible that I should be afraid of him rather than the reverse.
But there it was. I was the scary boss.
Over the years, I've seen a lot of managers who have been regarded as terrifying
by their staffs. I'm not sure how many realized it, but I suspect that most of them
probably never knew the degree to which they were considered frightening, intimidating
or just plain mean.
What makes someone a scary boss? Are you one of them? Here are a few of the things
that tend to foster that impression.
Sometimes, just having the boss title is enough to make you scary. The fact that
you have the power to hire, fire and grant raises and bonuses makes you a menacing
If people can't reasonably anticipate your response to a situation, they naturally
assume the worst. IT professionals are well-trained symbolic thinkers. Their education,
and comfort, is rooted in the deterministic. "If I put a 3 in that field, I know
that the algorithm says that the answer will always be a 12." Random responses to
the same stimuli mean only one thing to technical folks: bugs. If you as a manager
are unpredictable, clearly you are a bug in your own departmental system.
Even the most predictable manager can be emotionally volatile. An unbridled temper
is never a comfort to one's staff. In some ways this is like unpredictability. If
your mood or other events occasionally affect your responses to situations, then
you might be scary all of the time.
Mistrust of staff.
If through word or deed you regularly display mistrust of or contempt for staff,
presenting things to you will likely be a scary experience. Mistrust can be communicated
in myriad subtle ways. Some managers ask lots of rudimentary questions of the staff,
displaying disdain for their abilities. Others ask endless, aggressive, prosecutorial
questions that suggest a hunt for some deliberately concealed truth.
Hoarding of information.
Supervisors known for not sharing valuable information frustrate and frighten their
staffs. Hoarding suggests that the boss is either power-hungry and self-serving or
oblivious and incompetent. Neither interpretation is comforting.
Not protecting staff.
One of the things that subordinates reasonably expect from their supervisors is protection
from external forces. If someone in the group gets fired every time the boss's boss
throws a temper tantrum, then people feel unduly exposed to the political elements.
It's as if every deckhand on a sailing vessel felt compelled to keep an eye on the
weather because the captain wasn't trustworthy.
As for the guy who wouldn't tell me about his crappy project, I eventually discovered
that he was both afraid of my position and angry at me for having it. He had wanted
the job, but it had been offered to me. So he was afraid of me for reasons having
almost nothing to do with me personally. But it didn't matter; I had become the scary
If you want to encourage the development of mutual trust that encourages productivity,
it's important to know: Are you one, too?