How to Know If You're Intimidating Employees (and How to Stop It)

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How to Know If You're Intimidating Employees (and How to Stop It)
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You’re not one to intimidate employees. You lead by example, strive for a collaborative environment and value input from your staff. All of which is why you may be surprised to hear -- or maybe just sense -- that you intimidate your team. 

There are warning signs: Everyone agrees with you, even when you’re asking for honest feedback; staff tends to quiet down when you walk into a room; or you see a quick look of nervousness on a junior employee’s face when you ask them to complete a task.

A recent study by Hult International Business School showed about 34 percent of junior employees surveyed were likely to stay silent on issues of concern, even one of malpractice in the workplace. Further, researchers found 39 percent of survey participants said they felt “guarded” rather than “open” during meetings.

Good ideas can change an organization for the better. Open communication can give upper management room to make smart decisions and uncover malpractice or inappropriate behavior in the workplace. You may not know you’re intimidating employees, but if you are, it’s time to change that. Here’s how.

Related: 6 Effective Tactics of Handling a Toxic Boss

Recognize the Intimidation Factor

If you notice that employees, especially junior staff, stay quiet during meetings, it may be due to upper management. You’re not immune to intimidating staff, even if that’s not your intent. Consider the difference in pay, influence and power among staff members. Upper management and board members are understandably more comfortable speaking up. They’ve likely been around for longer and feel more secure in their jobs. Meanwhile, junior employees may feel less secure in their jobs and be more acutely aware of the power dynamics at play.

As someone in power, you need to recognize that the power alone may be intimidating. If you’re frustrated by the lack of open and honest communication at work, look inward before turning outward. You may have control over whether they even have a job. Recognize the power you have, and how that can be intimidating.

Seek Feedback

Not sure of the extent of the intimidation factor at your organization? Seek out honest feedback from employees. Send out a staff-wide, confidential survey, and ask employees to be as honest as possible about the power dynamics at play. It’s key to keep the survey anonymous and ask how long an employee has been with a company. You should also factor in employees’s stature at an organization, whether junior, middle management or in senior roles.

Ask individuals how they would rate overall communication at your organization and whether they’re intimidated by upper management. Include questions asking whether factors such as gender, ethnicity and tenure play a role in whether they feel welcome to share opinions. You may find the results illuminating.

Change Communication Styles

Facial expressions, tone of voice and verbal and written communication styles all matter. You may think your neutral face communicates you’re listening. Turns out employees may take that to mean you don’t care what they think. Instead, take the opportunity to nod as an employee makes a suggestion, and dare to smile at staff when they suggest changes, even if you don’t ultimately put those changes into effect.

Focus your attention solely on employees when talking. You may be checking your phone or laptop during a meeting because you’re dealing with an angry client, but your team members don’t know that. Give an individual your full attention while they’re speaking.

Don’t dismiss an employee’s idea or respond with anger, sarcasm or disinterest. This is true at all times, but be especially attentive to your responses when in a public setting, such as a teamwide meeting. Your friends outside of work may appreciate your sarcastic sense of humor, but it’s not the time to hand out a teasing barb.

Related: These 4 Types of 'Nightmare Managers' Are Scaring Employees Away

Take the time to notice your employees’s facial expressions, too. If you see them shutting down during communication, it may be out of fear. Or if you see a junior employee contribute to a conversation during a meeting only to remain quiet during subsequent meetings, take note. It may not be because they’re out of ideas. It might be because of how you react. Fortunately, you have the power to change your own actions and foster an open, honest environment where employees feel free to express themselves. 

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