Are you a scary boss?

I’ll never forget the first time I learned that one of my subordinates was afraid of me. A talented young man, probably 26, had just left my office after explaining to me how happy he was with his current project. My assistant came in and told me that he had spent the 20 minutes prior to our appointment complaining to her about how terrible his project was and how miserable he felt.

I was absolutely incredulous. Why would he lie to me? What was the point? I was the one person who could help him, if only he asked for help. I asked my assistant, “Why he would do that?”

“He’s afraid of you,” she said matter-of-factly. The words hung there in the air for a minute as I tried to absorb their meaning. Someone was afraid of me — of me. It was unfathomable.

It certainly didn’t fit my self-image. I was 27, short, introverted, quiet and intimidated by my new job managing 50 people, mostly older than me. What’s to be afraid of? It seemed more plausible that I should be afraid of him rather than the reverse.

But there it was. I was the scary boss.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of managers who have been regarded as terrifying by their staffs. I’m not sure how many realized it, but I suspect that most of them probably never knew the degree to which they were considered frightening, intimidating or just plain mean.

What makes someone a scary boss? Are you one of them? Here are a few of the things that tend to foster that impression.

Position. Sometimes, just having the boss title is enough to make you scary. The fact that you have the power to hire, fire and grant raises and bonuses makes you a menacing figure.

Unpredictability. If people can’t reasonably anticipate your response to a situation, they naturally assume the worst. IT professionals are well-trained symbolic thinkers. Their education, and comfort, is rooted in the deterministic. “If I put a three in that field, I know that the algorithm says that the answer will always be a 12.” Random responses to the same stimuli mean only one thing to technical folks: bugs. If you as a manager are unpredictable, clearly you are a bug in your own departmental system.

Volatility. Even the most predictable manager can be emotionally volatile. An unbridled temper is never a comfort to one’s staff. In some ways this is like unpredictability. If your mood or other events occasionally affect your responses to situations, then you might be scary all of the time.

Mistrust of staff. If through word or deed you regularly display mistrust of or contempt for staff, presenting things to you will likely be a scary experience. Mistrust can be communicated in myriad subtle ways. Some managers ask lots of rudimentary questions of the staff, displaying disdain for their abilities. Others ask endless, aggressive, prosecutorial questions that suggest a hunt for some deliberately concealed truth.

Hoarding of information. Supervisors known for not sharing valuable information frustrate and frighten their staffs. Hoarding suggests that the boss is either power-hungry and self-serving or oblivious and incompetent. Neither interpretation is comforting.

Not protecting staff. One of the things that subordinates reasonably expect from their supervisors is protection from external forces. If someone in the group gets fired every time the boss’s boss throws a temper tantrum, then people feel unduly exposed to the political elements. It’s as if every deckhand on a sailing vessel felt compelled to keep an eye on the weather because the captain wasn’t trustworthy.

As for the guy who wouldn’t tell me about his crappy project, I eventually discovered that he was both afraid of my position and angry at me for having it. He had wanted the job, but it had been offered to me. So he was afraid of me for reasons having almost nothing to do with me personally. But it didn’t matter; I had become the scary boss.

If you want to encourage the development of mutual trust that encourages productivity, it’s important to know: Are you one, too?

Paul Glen is an IT management consultant in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 2003; He can be reached at [email protected].

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