“Leadership is based on inspiration, not domination; on cooperation, not intimidation.” – William Arthur Wood
Intimidation is a valuable clue to behavior. It tells you much about your personality. From what intimidates you to what about you intimidates others can give you an excellent perspective on self-awareness and self-management. What intimidation isn’t is a great leadership quality.
As an executive coach, I am often exploring these parts of my client’s personalities, hoping to help them discover the insight to manage both what intimidates them and what is intimidating about them to others. There is no case in my experience where exploring both of these areas hasn’t resulted in excellent self-discovery for my clients.
So, if you want to learn something valuable about yourself and your leadership, let’s try an exercise together:
- First, take out a pen and paper.
- Next, draw three lines down the middle, so you have three equal segments on the paper.
- Now, label the left column: 1) People Who Intimidate Me; 2) the middle column, No One Intimidates or Feels Intimidated by the Other, and 3) the last column, People I Intimidate.
- Then, starting with your first job ever, remember your bosses and your colleagues, assigning each person to one of the three columns.
- Finally, tally the numbers in each column and examine. Ask yourself, are the columns about equal or is one column much, much larger than the other?
What Does This Self-Examination Tell You?
There are a few things this exercise reveals.
Look at column #1, “People Who Intimidate Me.” Is this column empty or have only one or two names? I would be surprised if it did for most people. If yours does, you must have been a tough cookie at age 25 if your boss or boss’ boss didn’t intimidate you (even if it was just a little). With my clients, I encourage them to look to their past again.
What if there are few if any names in the third column, “People I Intimidate?”Ask yourself if you were completely honest. Can’t you think of one person you think felt threatened by you? Is there more than one?
And what about the scrutiny on the middle column, “No One Intimidates or Feels Intimidated by the Other?” There you listed people where you did not perceive intimidation on either side. Any chance that they may have perceived it differently? You might even contact a few of them to double check. It could be a fun conversation to have with a few of those folks you haven’t spoken to in a long time.
Besides brutal honesty, what is critical to this exercise is an examination of the dynamics and personalities of the people in each column. Each of these personality traits you identify in others as either intimidating or not are an insight into your personality. What you define as intimidating in the other defines something about you. What you think makes you intimidating, is also key to your personality traits and values.
For example, pick one of the Intimidators from your list. How would you describe him or her? Were they brash, bullying, arrogant, rude or something else I didn’t list here? Now consider yourself at that time. Any chance that you perceived arrogance or bullying when it might have been something else? In other words, is it possible the person’s knowledge and experience so outweighed yours that you felt uncomfortable and put a negative label on it?
Now, go back to the column listing the folks you indicated you might have intimidated. How would you describe them? Were they wishy-washy, insecure, “too nice” or something along those lines? Take a hard look at your behavior in that situation. Is it possible they were responding with these traits because of your behavior, and not because they are naturally this way?
What you extract from this exercise, about your colleagues and even more importantly about you, tells you what personality characteristics are more likely to make you feel intimidated. It might also tell you what personality characteristics you value as a leader.
In many ways, this is one of the most crucial exercises a leader can do. If you are going to lead well, you must be fully aware of what people/situations/personalities intimidate you, and vice versa. This self-awareness helps you react more strategically and less emotionally. It also gives you the self-awareness to control what makes you intimidating, helping eliminating instances where you “run over” people, dismiss or interrupt them, which devalues them—whether it’s intentional or not!
What can you do to remove the intimidation from either side of your leadership today?
I wasn’t born a hugger and did not grow up in a huggy-kissy culture. Dominated by Norwegian immigrants and their families, our town and state are famous for a lack of demonstrative affection (and sense of humor). When it came to hugging in business, I learned as a grown up when it was and when it wasn’t appropriate.
I am happy to say I learned hugging has its time and place. Over the years, I also learned it takes emotional intelligence to know which time and what place.
When it comes to hugging in business, I have three rules:
- Know the culture.
- Pay attention to the other person’s vibes.
- Above all, avoid violating the other’s personal space.
Know the Culture
While mothers hugged children when I was growing up, I remember only one kiss on the cheek between my parents. It wasn’t until I moved to Virginia I learned I lacked a natural tendency to hug. Almost everybody hugged me–including total strangers! It didn’t matter if it was in a social situation or even at the office.
At first, my response was to back up. Eventually, I figured out hugging was the culture and began to hug back (a little). By the time I left Virginia, however, I was a certified hugger. Not deep hugs, you understand and never to total strangers, but a brief, warm show of affection turned out to be fairly painless.
Pay Attention to the Other People’s Vibes
I left Virginia to attend law school in Kansas. By now, I was the one initiating the hugs, and it took me awhile to figure out these folks were backing up! Then, it dawned on me; I was back to more distance and less demonstrative affection. I was in law school in No Hugging, Kansas, three years, and the truth is there wasn’t time or energy leftover for hugging.
Then I moved to Southern California. Here was a culture where many people came from somewhere else, so anything goes. In many situations, it was hugging expected–and lots and lots of air kisses (Defined as lips puckered, leaning towards the other and saying, “mwaaaa!”; also known as the “Hollywood Hello”).
Oh yes, there was plenty of overkill. Too many “mwaaas!” when the air kisser’s roving eyes betrayed that they would have preferred to be with someone more important. In other situations, I could tell right away that hugs were not the order of the day. Instead, a handshake worked just fine. This situation notwithstanding, I was glad to land in a world where demonstrating affection could be okay in some cases. It is a kind of lovely reassurance of our humanness.
Avoid Violating People’s Personal Space
How one touches another in business is, of course, critical. Since individuals and cultures have different unspoken rules about personal space—especially how much comfort there is with physical closeness– caution is always a wise decision.
One of the standard protocols when caring for people in institutions is called the residential hug—off to the side, so there is no torso contact. I employed this hug-type many times in business.
However, not everyone knows the residential hug or even good sense about what is appropriate in business. A guy who hugs too long pulls me too close or lets his hand slip one inch below my waist doesn’t get hugged back. One highly annoying woman that I saw once a week always insisted on hugging me, and then holding me in place while she adjusted something with my collar or my hair or my jewelry. After the fourth or fifth time, I gently took her hands and put them back at her side. “You know,” I said, “I think it’s better if I dress myself, but thanks for your offer to help.” I was a bit concerned I’d offended her, but she took it in her stride, and never adjusted anything on me again.
There you have it, my quick guide on hugging that took me decades to figure out. If you know the culture and read the situation, you are likely to be fine–especially if you employ the workplace friendly residential hug that has little chance of invading personal space.
What are your guidelines for when to hug or not to hug in business?
The magnificent “Tribute to Vienna” concert at the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles is an unlikely place for a leadership lesson. However, within the spectacular venue, a wonder to behold with the acoustics better than I can appreciate, an Intentional Leadership Lesson is what I had.
The orchestra was exquisite, as were the graceful dancers, and singers with voices that filled the massive hall. However, it was the conductor that fascinated and held me mesmerized thro
This conductor’s conduct was music to my ears.
ughout the performance. He is the Maestro of the Vienna Philharmonic, Neils Muus, an Intentional conductor.
The energy, acrobatics, enthusiasm and power of Neils Muus’ leadership was as beautiful to me as the performance it inspired. He used every part of his face and body intentionally—including his eyebrows! The impact was full-bodied, rich and unquestionable leadership
Some examples of Intentional Leadership I observed from the Intentional Conductor:
- A small railing was behind him as he faced the orchestra and periodically, he would lean one hand on it while sweeping the other in a full 360-degree arc.
- Other times he would jab his baton almost in the faces of the violin players or dip down to squatting position—and then leap up with both arms cajoling his performers to swell the sound coming out of their instruments.
- When he wanted quiet, the entire concert hall was hushed. We knew by his body language, whether he was facing us or the orchestra, exactly what he wanted—and he got it from us, audience and artists alike!
- At times, he would turn towards the audience and lean on the railing as he gazed admiringly at the beautiful dancers and singers performing at the front of the stage.
- Not infrequently, he burst into a huge grin, his whole face lighting up–and we grinned and lit up with him.
What do you as a leader do with your hands, arms, and eyebrows? If you don’t know, you are missing an incredible opportunity to impact your followers. If you do know but are not intentional in how you manage these vital aspects of how you communicate, you may be missing an opportunity for excellence.
Thank you, Maestro Muus, for a thrilling performance and another reminder of how intentionality is the foundation for exceptional leadership.
I’m not a big fan of teasingor practical jokes anywhere, but I’m especially not a fan of them in the office. However, I realize practical jokes happen. Sometimes they are good; sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they are too much. If you are anoffice prankster, you have to ask yourself do you know when enough is enough?
Do you know when enough is enough?
A successful prank involves having fun with good intentions, and that the prankee can take a joke. However, pranks are only funny for so long. If you rely on these shenanigans too often, they wear thin.
Too often in my experience, they are unkindnesses disguised with a smile or a thinly-disguised “gotcha.” The only exception I can think of is Ellen DeGeneres’ penchant for catching folks off guard. However, even with her kind intent, someone always ends up looking or feeling foolish. (See my post: Apology to Ellen DeGeneres)
I learned this lesson in my childhood. Unless you grew up in a dry, cold climate, you might not know one of the silly games most children played to entertain themselves during the long winters: Zapping. It works like this: you store up enough static electricity in your shoes by dragging them across the carpet to zap your buddy before you became the zappee. During winter, the static electricity built up in the thick rugs on our floors made us walking lightning rods. It was great fun to transmit the shock from our finger and “get” the other guy, over and over and over.
Sometimes the whole family got into the game. My mother would grin when she came up behind, pointing her loaded finger to my arm—and laugh out loud when I jumped. Then it was my turn to zap her and zap her, again and again.
When I kept zapping her, she didn’t zap back but started giving me a tired smile. I didn’t get the picture. After successfully shocking her several times, the smile devolved into a grimace, and I would hear a rather stern, “Judy, enough is enough!” Message received.
Too many grown ups have yet to learn this lesson. Constantly saying something to catch another off guard or putting them on the receiving end of pranks and teasing is a game many people play to the point of tedium.
Repetitive “gotchas” no matter how small can be annoying, too. For example, I tend to speak (and type) fast—and not infrequently scramble words or letters, as a result. It’s funny for someone to point out the first or second time, but a little tiresome beyond that. What does the constant pointing out of someone else’s errors do to enhance the relationship?
Over-repetition isn’t only a problem with jokes or gotchas. Sometimes people don’t know when to stop arguing their case. In more times than I can count, a member of my team aroused my ire by pushing for a point already decided the other way. I welcome and plead for candid input and feedback before we launch, but not after the ship has sailed (unless there’s an iceberg I didn’t notice!). If you fought the good fight and lost the war, it’s time to get over it, on with it, and start making the decision work.
Few people run around dragging their shoes on the carpet to shock someone at work. However, games are played, people are teased, and repetitive arguments are made to the point of becoming tiresome, irritating or even hurtful. The key here, as my mother taught me, is knowing when enough is enough.
Do you know when enough is enough?
The inspiration for the cartoon above came from a situation occurring in my office one morning several decades ago. I could hardly wait to get to work as I had yet another of my endless new ideas and wanted to share it with my team.
“Urgent meeting,” I said to my staff. “My office, now.”
They dutifully filed in, dropping everything else they were working on, and sat at attention.
“I had this fabulous idea, and I want to tell you about it,” I began, and then blathered on for a few minutes. When I finished, I asked them, “Well? What do you think? Be honest!”
The usually noisy group was quiet. I remember a lot of blinking eyes looking back at me for a while. The newest member of the team finally spoke up.
“You’re telling us that you think your idea is brilliant, and now you want us to give you honest feedback…and you’re the boss?”
A senior member of the team guffawed. Someone else giggled, and then, we all cracked up.
Apparently, I wasn’t looking for honest feedback. I wanted them to tell me what a brilliant idea it was. Only, as it turns out, it wasn’t such a hot notion, and (as usual) would have meant piles of extra work since it wasn’t in the plan with which we had all agreed.
When one person called me out—without much concern for the boss’s ego I might add–we were all spared from a massive, foolish, group-think decision based on my creativity gone unleashed and my role as the authority figure.
But the deeper lesson here is care is needed when asking for feedback. A climate of trust has to be present before anyone is willing to be honest about anything.
Feedback assumes various forms: negative, positive, constructive, and useless (insulting and suggestions for kissing unmentionable body parts, too, but that’s another post). There are some advantages of giving and receiving feedback. I learned these benefits when I received honest, direct, caring but no-nonsense assessments of my ideas or leadership. The few people in my life brave enough to confront me with behaviors contradictory to my stated values taught me the most.
I also learned the benefits a great deal more when I began to give honest, direct, and caring feedback. Most people want feedback, and when given correctly, they can learn and grow from it. When given incorrectly, feedback can be and often is, destructive and disrespectful. The bottom line: it backfires, and you don’t get the results you want.
Further complicating this environment of truth, however, is if you’re the boss, it’s doubtful anyone has ever been or ever will be entirely honest. It’s not how we’re wired. The U.S. culture does not embrace the one so frequently found in Asia, “Never speak while the father is speaking.” Regardless, we believe authority demands respect. She that has the power is the boss. So…respect her ideas, dummy!
It’s up to the leader to set the example for proper giving, asking for and receiving honest feedback and the culture where people can trust they won’t suffer punishment for being honest. The words you choose, the tone, the facial expression, the body language and your record—all convey either directly or indirectly whether we want the truth, half the truth or flattery, and obsequiousness.
What kind of climate do you present to your team when asking for feedback: One that promotes honest feedback or one that encourages sycophantic babble?
Leaders must manage emotional confidences tactfully.
A leader carries a broad mantle of actual and ascribed roles. Boss, teacher, colleague, friend, listener, visionary, and problem-solver are the most prevalent. Frequently, an employee will turn to the manager as mother/father confessor—someone he or she feels can be trusted to keep a confidence.
Frequently, it’s a complaint about a co-worker or seeking advice on how to be a better manager. Sometimes the confidence they seek concerns a family member—such as an impending divorce, or the need to care for an elderly family member. Other times it might be about financial problems. Many leaders are formal and informal mentors and provide valuable growth experience to those who report to them.
However, when the person starts to cry, figuratively or literally, the leader has some decisions to make. If the individual just needs a sympathetic ear for a few minutes, this may be an opportunity for the manager to give needed support—and that will be the end of it.
On the other hand, if this is a regular diatribe about a non-work-related situation, you might provide a referral for counseling or other assistance. Becoming the go-to person to unload on is ill-advised at best.
How to Manage Emotional Discussions Tactfully:
- Limit the conversation. Make a decision about how much time you will allow for what’s coming at the beginning of the conversation. “I can spare ten minutes, Mark, but then I need to make a call.”
- Listen with a third ear. Are there any indications of potential harm in what you hear—to the person in the chair or to those around them?
- Decide where to sit. When you usually move to a less formal place for conversations but stay behind your desk for this one, it can subtly (or not so subtly) convey the idea that you are not welcoming an intimate conversation.
- Remember your role. Keep a sign inside your eyeballs that reads “I am not a trained therapist” (even if you are!) Have a stock of phrases ready to gently but firmly end the conversation, steer it in another direction and/or send clear messages when needed; e.g., “I’m sorry to hear how much you are hurting Janelle, but I’m not the person who can help. I’d like to suggest that you seek professional help.”
- Be careful how much you probe. There are some things people have on their minds that you don’t want to hear. Many new leaders are shocked to learn what highly personal, inappropriate topics some of their employees choose to bring them.
- Have an established procedure for alerting others, not only for possible assistance but also as a witness—particularly if this is a male to female encounter. It’s rare, but it could happen that someone loses control in your office and threatens you. Some would advise never to close the door when the two people are of the opposite sex. I disagree unless you are dealing with an unstable person; that seems like overkill and an enormous barrier to trust.
Sooner or later, every manager will encounter an emotional situation with a direct report or a peer. There is no harm in being a good listener—to a point. Being prepared to manage the outcome as tactfully and as strategically as possible is an important tool in the leader’s toolbox.
How do you handle tricky emotional situations?