How to Moderate Subtle Intimidation

You are a leader who is skillful at creating and sustaining healthy workplace relationships. You don’t use fear or threats to get what you want. Despite your skill, you may unknowingly intimidate others in a more subtle way. In fact, you are probably more intimidating than you think you are; most leaders don’t see it in themselves.

It’s important for you to be aware that others may be fearful of you simply because of the position you hold. There are ways to overcome this to a degree, but you may not ever be able to overcome “positional intimidation” completely.

You may also exhibit some subtle behaviors that can cause others to be intimidated. These may be unintentional on your part, but they can work against you. When you moderate or eliminate those subtle behaviors, chances are that others will follow your lead willingly and joyously.

Some of the common subtle behaviors that can intimidate others:

Emotional distance: You may limit your interactions or you may be too serious or stern when the situation calls for more levity.

Impatience: You show your impatience when people don’t act quickly enough.

Anger: Subtle flashes of anger pass across your face or you change your tone of voice when you are upset.

Holding your knowledge over others: You love to tell others how much you know about a topic.

Cultivate the right mind sets to moderate subtle intimidation:

Just changing your behavior may not be enough to overcome your intimidating behaviors because if you don’t actually think differently, others will see right through your less-than-genuine behavior. Instead, begin working on cultivating your mind set in the following areas:

Honor yourself: Your intimidating behavior may come from feeling inadequate in some areas. What are your strengths? Honor them.

Become grateful: What is it that you are grateful for in others? What are the strengths they have that you appreciate and haven’t noticed in the past? Be aware and thankful for the gifts others bring to the workplace.

Increase humility: What do others do well that you’d like to learn? Realize that you have much to learn, and open yourself to learning from others.

Seek understanding: What judgments do you make of others that you are willing to let go of? Can you see beyond the façade they present in order to begin to comprehend what’s beneath the surface? Listen deeply to understand their viewpoints; you may find wisdom.

Make the effort to stretch out and practice these new ways of thinking. Changing a mind set is not easy, but once you begin to change your attitude, the appropriate behaviors may follow, making you more approachable and less intimidating.



I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

16 comments on “How to Moderate Subtle Intimidation

  1. I found your blog about subtle intimidation very informative. I agree with your points about cultivating the right mindset and think that this helps to alleviate intimidation immensely.

    As a new manager I have realized just how intimidating “position” can be – even when the message to the employee isn’t one of intimidation. Without meaning to do so I put one of my employees in a difficult bind by asking them to do something that they really didn’t have time to do. This caused a lot of stress for the employee. When we finally spoke about the issue I realized that the employee was afraid to tell me about their other commitments because they felt like they just “had to do it” because I was “the boss”. I had asked the employee in the nicest way to do the task but was a bit astonished to find out how position can affect someone’s reaction. I have no doubt that had we held equal positions within the company this person would have shared their pressing commitments with me and we would have quickly adjusted the plan so that everything could get done.

  2. I found this post to be pretty insightful. I know we all do things in the heat of the moment that don’t come across as helpful as we’d like. But I never really thought about how the items you listed above come across as intimidating. While there is certainly a benefit to being seen as confident in the workplace, being intimidating isn’t terribly helpful. I have identified that at times I am less than patient, and although I work on it constantly, it is frustrating that it is still a part of me. Perhaps some of the ideas you listed will be helpful, in maximizing my patience, or at least helping not to show others when things are frustrating me. I certainly don’t want to intimidate those around me, as it creates a very uncomfortable work environment. Thanks for the ideas.

  3. Mike, thank you for your story. It illustrates perfectly how unintentional we can be when it comes to subtle intimidation. And your insight about how it would be different if you were both peers is spot on, and something I hadn’t thought about. A recent post that might interest you on the topic of “equality” can be found at

    Ray, you’ve highlighted one of the biggest problems IMHO in leadership today – the environment we’re in screams at us to continually react, leaving no time or energy to develop relationships with the very people who are important to our success. I appreciate your introspection, and wish you the best in moderating your impatience (p.s. something that has worked for some clients to mitigate impatience is to get into a regular cardio exercise routine. Makes sense since impatience is energy we need to get rid of. Why not get rid of it in a healthy way?).

  4. Hi MJ,

    Your first point about emotional distance reminds me of one of my favourite bosses I worked for some years ago. He was very giving and supportive, and yet, he was often very distant emotionally which made him at times seem very intimidating. It was only through working with him more that I realized that this was unintentional on his part.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think he realized how much it did intimidate people, including those who had worked with him for many years simply because they couldn’t quite guage his reaction.

    It just goes to reinforce the notion that emotional suppression at work is more counterproductive than beneficial for leading your team.

  5. Tanveer, this is a great example of the Subtle Intimidation Factor. Most leaders don’t recognize the intimidation they cause. When my clients get feedback that indicates they may be causing some fear, they are often astounded. But the best ones take it to heart and begin to do what they need to do to moderate it. Thanks!

  6. When I was younger (and still now, but less so) I used to be pretty shy and quiet. I usually kept to myself and didn’t go out of my way to talk to others or make friends, probably from fear of rejection. So I was shocked when a friend of mine told me that my silence had come off as superiority and arrogance when she had first met me. How easy it is to forget that everyone we meet gets a different impression of us, and can’t read our minds or our intentions! It’s no different when you become a manager, except that the position becomes part of that first impression.

  7. I really liked the article. i did not realize that in keeping some distance from employees one could come off as intimidating. It is tough to be able not to intimidate employees while still maintaining the manager employee relationship. I hope the strategies you list are useful.

  8. Mary Jo, during my career, I always considered myself to be very approachable. Like Sarah, I have also always been somewhat shy. So, I was surprised when one day, someone told me that I could be intimidating. I said something like, “ Who Me? Where does that come from?”
    The feedback I got was that I had this way of looking over my glasses at people and it made them squirm a bit. I couldn’t help but smile because at the time, glasses were new to me and I wasn’t quite used to having them on my face. But the more I thought about it, the more I could see the impact peering over them might have had on someone sitting across from me. And, to be truthful, in spite of being shy, I could get quite impassioned when talking on a topic about which I held strong opinions.
    Your message is a great reminder to me of how subtle behaviour can affect others in a far from subtle way. And, it also speaks to the importance of being self aware.
    Thank you for another thoughtful post, Mary Jo.

  9. Thank you for posting this article. I have wondered numerous times why I feel that others are intimidated by me. I thought people felt I was an extension of my boss. But now I realize that my emotional distance, appearance of impatience and perhaps knowledge can all be a part of the intimidation one may feel in my presence. I tend to be an observer and remain quiet until I have something to say and in an effort to come across more personable, when I have something in common or have knowledge on the topic at hand I want to contribute it. I also have a serious demeanor at work and I can see how this can be construed as impatience since I like to work quickly – and I thought I was being more effective? Pointing these behaviors out to me, makes total sense and I will try to appreciate others more for their experiences and “gifts” they have to offer instead of feeling like I have to relate some how, I need to practice to just listen…patiently and unrushed. Thank you for identifying these subtle behaviors, I am gradually…slowly…learning how every action I make is perceived or judged by others around me even when it is not noticeable to me.

  10. Sarah and Greg, your stories aren’t so uncommon for introverted leaders. When you become a manager, people are watching you more closely and I’ve found that, absent of information (i.e. you are emotionally distant or don’t make an effort to meet people), they’ll make up stories about you!

    Gwyn, what a great story. It must have been difficult to learn that a.) people were watching you that closely, and b.) looking over your glasses could cause such a reaction. Scott Eblin suggests smiling more. I like that. Not too hard to do, and may mitigate what others find intimidating.

    Megan, I think the feedback you received was a gift! How courageous of you for understanding the impact your subtle behaviors has on others. I find it interesting that so many people have commented on the “emotional distance” behavior and can’t help but wonder how many leaders distance themselves intentionally.

  11. Hello Mary Jo,
    Thank you for putting language around the topic of “subtle intimidation”, for the examples of how we demonstrate these behaviors and how to cultivate a new mindset … very insightful! I can easily see some of my actions that I will be refining. Excellent reminders for all areas of our lives

  12. Thank you for posting this article and I really like it. This article reminds me some teachers in the high school, who share a common feature that is intimidating. We feared them at that time, but no one could tell why, only thinking they were too strict. But right now, I know the reason: they were always serous, never smiling, and did not have a good tamper. I think it is the similar case that we will feel someone is nice while others not just after the first meeting. Smile is the point.

  13. I am also thinking about the self-centered, the sort of personality that could exist in any person but when it comes down to your boss, it makes things even worse. The by-product of narcissism is anger and conflict in the workforce. In order to avoid that, a manager can try to be open to a few things, for example try to really understand that not only other ideas exist, but also sometimes they can be practical and engaging.

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