authority figure intimidation

I’ve actually had some time to do some reading this morning; look out! I read over Joel Spolsky’s latest article: “How Hard Could It Be?: How I Learned to Love Middle Managers.

But they also said that Michael [co-owner] and I did not seem to them to be approachable. If you wanted to talk to management, you had to coordinate a time when both founders were available, and frankly, a lot of people were too scared to do that. This surprised me, because my door is always open, and people seem to come in constantly to ask me questions. I didn’t realize that some of the newer people were intimidated.

Joel chose to tackle this issue several ways, most prominently by appointing leaders (pseudo-middle managers) who are more comfortable approaching the CEO then the newer guys. Yeah, that’s a way to go, but it really doesn’t solve the intimidation problem, does it? It just abstracts it a layer away.

To me intimidation always starts out as a perceived thing and it can come from a few conditioning factors. (Note: I’m using “intimidation” as more like an employee being timid, as opposed to an employer being actively menacing and intimidating.)

1) The employee’s previous workplace was highly authoritative and the managers really were actively intimidating or controlling. Hit a dog enough, and it will cower any time anyone moves towards it suddenly. Only time fixes this.

2) A natural sense that an authority figure is of some higher stature or importance and won’t consort with buddy-buddy talk with lower employees. Can the CEO really relate to my Rock Band hobby? The authority figure can fix this.

3) A utilitarian sense that the value of an authority figure’s time is too important to spend listening to an employee. (Really, just think how much a minute your CEO likely makes…that’s intimidating). The authority figure can fix this.

4) A perception that any time spent in front of an authority figure is judgement time; every movement, word, and tic is being judged by the authority figure and may get you on their negative side. The authority figure can fix this.

I wonder, however, if there is a better way: make some time to buddy-up to the new employees. Take them out, get dirty and play paintball, sit down and join in with some video games and trash talk, go out for beers Friday night and check out the game or the girls. Basically, bridge the gap of friendship and familiarity.

Don’t make this a fear-inducing lunch outing with the CEO on Friday (“am I being fired?”), but rather something that doesn’t make someone question whether they’re acting properly for the CEO, nor forced like it is the CEO stooping down to rub shoulders in the trenches….while he wears his suit and tie and cuff links and checks the time on his next appointment.

To the outside world, be the CEO. But to the inside intimate company, be just another guy who knows the answers.

(Disclaimer: I’ve never been a manager, so I may be full of shit. 🙂 )

One thought on “authority figure intimidation

  1. You’re not full of shit, but there’s one more thing you might not be aware of: you only have so much control over how people think of you, especially if they know more about you than you know about them. (This happens as you move up the management chain, and meet people all day long. You can’t possibly remember them all, but they will remember you.) There came a point in my career when, even though I felt I hadn’t changed, people started apologizing for requesting meetings with me. The more meetings I was in (that they knew about), the more of a perception they built up that I was Too Busy to have time for them, so they were more hesitant about asking for it. (And yes, several of these were my own direct reports!) No matter how many times I say, “No, really, it’s all right,” I can’t change their perceptions, because I really DO go to a lot of meetings.

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