One day, as principal of a relatively large high school in Florida, I welcomed two FBI agents into my office—crisply starched shirts, conservative striped ties, and short haircuts. I believe they also carried guns. After being seated, they told me that the father of one of our graduating seniors was on the FBI’s wanted list. They wanted me to know that they would be in the audience of our upcoming graduation ceremony in case the father showed up for the event. *
About half-way through the conversation, one of the men looked around the office and somewhat uncomfortably wiped his forehead and loosened his tie. He sheepishly explained to me that even at his age, he felt uncomfortable in “the principal’s office.” I was a little amused by his comment. I consider myself mild-mannered, I am average in height, and I don’t think of myself as very intimidating.
I was reminded of this incident recently as I talked with a leader who has responsibility for about 50 people. His direct reports oversee as many as 800 more. This leader discussed his relationship with his supervisor and how he sometimes did not speak up to share his ideas or to comment when he disagreed with his boss’s ideas. In addition, he willingly took on some of the boss's responsibilities when the boss dropped the ball.
This very responsible leader respected his supervisor and he wanted to maintain a good relationship with him, but he admitted that he was slightly intimidated. He realized that he sometimes left important comments unsaid and that he could eventually become overwhelmed if he continued to take on unassigned tasks.
It is easy to think that an adult or person in a position of authority always feels in control. However, that is not always the case. Just like the FBI agent who was intimidated by my position, this competent, intelligent and often forceful leader found himself vulnerable to positional intimidation.
In the case of this leader, his ideas were not heard and he was taking on unnecessary work because he did not feel comfortable discussing tasks the person above him on the organizational chart left undone.
Being aware of how position alone may bring about intimidation and being sensitive to factors can intimidate enhances relationships, increases collaboration and boosts personal and organizational effectiveness.
I have included below a few factors that increase intimidation. Paying attention to these factors and making efforts to minimize them enhances relationships and collaboration.
- Physical presence - I once worked with a tall and physically powerful man, whose presence often intimidated people he supervised. I found him to be funny and caring, and I sometimes wondered if he realized his physical impact. If he did, I wondered if on occasion he used it to his advantage. However, I think the level of intimidation reduced his overall effectiveness because people were sometimes unwilling to talk with him or offer suggestions that may have improved the organization.
- Physical space – Most leaders recognize the importance of choosing where to sit when in meetings with others. Generally, sitting at the head of a table indicates power. Sitting on the sides of a rectangular table reduces the intimidation factor. Leaders sometimes have round tables in their offices, which they use to reduce the positional intimidation factor. When they feel a need to show power, they sit behind an imposing desk.
- Voice and language - A leader’s voice and language can set the stage for intimidation. A loud voice and/or derogatory comments to and about others increase fear and intimidation.
- Organizational norms - Intimidation flourishes in some organizational cultures; it is less obvious in others. When leaders make it a point to get to know people in the organization and make it clear that their doors are open, employees and customers feel less intimidated. When social and business events are more casual and people have the opportunity to see leaders in a different light, they are more likely to respond more openly.
It is important to remember that anything that reduces discussion and collaboration lessens the success of a group. Whatever the causes of intimidation may be, leaders should think about its impact, question to what extent it exists, and take steps to minimize it if or when it reduces effectiveness and productivity.
*I never saw the FBI agents in the large crowd at graduation, and I don't think they arrested the father.
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The topic of leadership presence is covered in much greater detail in my book, Connect: Affective Leadership℠ for Effective Results.