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Psychologist explains the business damage from intimidating your team

Intimidation is often used in the wrong way in the workplace, and it is only detrimental to the long-term viability of the business. Dr Amy Silver explains the right way to harness fear and intimidation in the workplace.


People are often intimidated by those higher up the hierarchy. This is good and bad. It will mean people do not want to let you down; they want to impress you with their work or their thoughts and will fear the consequences of not doing so.

However, if this tips over into fear of making a connection with you or fear of saying what they really think or showing you where you have made a mistake, or fear of bringing new ideas, we minimise what they can do for you and with you.

There are two main reasons why people are intimidated:

Others bring a level of intimidation with them from the culture or the workplaces that predate this role: We are to a large extent programmed to speak when spoken to, agree with those in power and keep our heads down. We carry a set of beliefs and values that mean that we become extra vigilant when near those in powerful positions. Sometimes it is just the story of previous intimidating people or positions rather than the lived experience that is enough to intimidate.

You create a level of intimidation that is extra from the position you hold: Being busy or distracted, not having time to connect at a human level can make us short with people, less open to others and their thoughts. A quick dismissal, a lack of a smile, the avoidance of eye contact, the minimalist or task-oriented conversation can without intention create fear for others.

Here are the steps to make sure that you are not creating the negative consequences of intimidating your colleagues.

  • Recognise whether you (or others in leadership roles) are intimidating by reflecting on the variety of ideas presented to you, or whether it is easy for you to steer the conversation. While this could be an indication of influence, it could also be an indication of group think, lack of diversity of thought, singular decision-making, and it will ultimately mean you are not using the team effectively or collectively.
  • Ensure you are working to chip away at the belief that there is command control leadership. Demonstrate servant leadership by welcoming feedback from others around you, showing vulnerability by asking for help and acknowledging others’ contributions.
  • Enable your colleagues to find their voices. This could be the first time for them to learn how to speak up, even if they are in a safe space. We want to hear their contributions and their ideas, and if they spot a mistake or a better way to do things, we want to hear that. We want people to feel courageous enough to speak up in a meeting and not inefficiently in an offline meeting afterwards. We want them to give other colleagues feedback or hold people to account on behaviours, quality of work or time lines. Courage and courageous communication are things we can teach our staff, and we will be better off for it. Our culture will have higher dynamism, higher engagement and stronger agility to face into our complex future worlds.
  • Learn how to be aware of the impact of your micro-movements on your colleagues. A simple eye roll, hand gesture, removal of eye contact or shuffling of papers can all signal to someone that you haven’t got the time for them. They may take that cue and layer in all sorts of stories and concerns that will set off a cortisol response in their brain and they will literally shut down the most clever part of their brain. If you can tweak these little movements, you will offset the chance of that fear system being activated and build the opportunity for connection and trust. Your vigilance in this area is essential. Others are assessing your movements, looking for signs of rejection (because we are human), and if they perceive dismissal this time, they will be waiting for it next time.

While there are some advantages that are clearly achieved through intimidation, collective intelligence is not one of them. Build a program that enables your leaders to ensure that fear is being harnessed for good not bad.

Dr Amy Silver Clin PsyD MPhil MA BSc (Hons) MAPS is a psychologist, keynote speaker and author on harnessing fear for good. Her High Performance Teaming program enables courageous behaviour, deep interpersonal trust and a culture of conversations that count.

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