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10 Warning Signs You’re Intimidating Your Employees at Work

10 Warning Signs You’re Intimidating Your Employees at Work

Very few leaders set out to be intimidating. In fact, most have a genuine desire to get along with their employees and build relationships based on mutual trust and respect. It makes sense then that two-thirds of respondents in a Harvard Business Review survey felt they were rarely or never scary to those junior to them.

However, other studies paint a different picture. For example, 6 in 10 respondents reported feeling too intimidated to go to their boss or manager with an issue they were having.

This begs the question, what makes a leader intimidating in the eyes of employees? According to Psychology Today, this is can happen as a result of unconscious bias, defensiveness, past experiences, or unconscious influences/motives on the employee’s part.

While this may lead you to believe this is the employee’s issue, think again. Leaders often demonstrate behaviors either verbally or nonverbally, consciously or unconsciously, that exacerbate the problem. As such, the following article will outline what those things are, how employees typically respond when they feel intimidated by their leader, and what you can start doing about it.


Do you know what your leadership style is? If not, take this quiz to find out!


10 Things Leaders Do That Makes Them Seem Intimidating

It is beneficial to know what behaviors, actions, or traits are commonly seen as intimidating to those who are junior to you. These include: 

  • You’re assertive 
  • You only talk business
  • You treat conversations like debates
  • You’re brutally honest
  • You ask a lot of questions
  • You cut people off
  • You’re very logical 
  • You’re short with people who complain 
  • You have strong boundaries 
  • Your verbal and non-verbal communication is intense (ex. Eye contact, tone of voice)

10 Things Leaders Do That Makes Them Seem Intimidating


How Do You Tell If You Intimidate Your Employees?

When employees experience one or more of the behaviors listed above from their leaders, they may feel intimidated. As a result, it is common for them to show the following signs: 

  • They apologize more than necessary 
  • They don’t ask questions
  • They don’t ask for your help 
  • They avoid eye contact
  • They don’t bring ideas or points of view that are different from yours
  • They try to make problems seem less bad

How Do You Tell If You Intimidate Your Employees


What You Can Do to Be a Less Intimidating Leader

If you have a suspicion that your employees see you as intimidating based on the list of leadership behaviors and employee responses listed above, consider adopting the following into your leadership practice. You may be surprised how such seemingly small things can make a radical difference in your employee's feelings and attitude towards you.


Open Up

If you’re someone who is prone to cutting small talk short or avoiding it, consider speaking candidly (where appropriate) and reveal more about yourself than you might typically. In doing this, you humanize yourself and remind employees that besides the title and formal authority you have, you are like them in many ways, which ultimately, makes you seem more relatable and less intimidating.


Admit When You Don’t Know or Have Made a Mistake

There is a narrative in some circles that leaders have to have all the answers and are never wrong. This is not only impossible for you to live up to as a leader, it’s intimidating for employees. Instead, start admitting when you don’t have an answer or have made a mistake. This level of authenticity, honesty, and transparency is not a weakness; it shows your character, builds trust, and presents opportunities for true collaboration.


Offer Your Help

A great way to remind your employees that you aren’t scary or intimidating is to offer your help, especially when there is a crisis or your team’s workload is heavy. This is not only an incredibly admirable leadership behavior, it reinforces the idea that you aren’t “above” getting your hands dirty and taking one for the team.


Ask For Constructive Feedback

Part of your job as a leader is to give your employees constructive feedback; but when’s the last time you asked them for feedback? If you want to seem less intimidating at work, be vulnerable and ask your employees, “Do you have any feedback for me?” This not only makes them feel like you value their thoughts and opinions, it also gives them the sense that you want to improve and be the best leader you can be for them.



Taking actions to seem less intimidating in the eyes of your employees is not just going to increase your effectiveness as a leader, it’s going to serve you well if one of your career aspirations is to climb the corporate ladder.

As one Inc.com author noted, “When two highly qualified people go neck and neck for a promotion, the decision often comes down to technical know-how or experience, but to soft skills. If you can't interact well and hinder others because they're fearful of you, your competitor will get the opportunity every time.”

Fortunately, an investment in your development, whether through training programs or one-to-one coaching, will help you successfully put the actions listed above into action, forge productive relationships with employees, and set yourself up to get ahead at work when the opportunity presents itself.

Do You Know Your Leadership Style? Take This Quiz and Find Out Now

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