What Everyone is Saying About Intimidation

I’m not often intimidated by questions from my MBA students, but this one was a stumper. It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with most of my career.

“Why do so many execs choose to take stances of fear and intimidation?”

Why Do So Many Execs Try to Intimidate Their Followers?

It started with our discussion of Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk on how your non-verbals can impact your confidence. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a powerful story. She conducts an experiment where interviewers try to be as intimidating as possible, with a stoic, non-emotional expression. Fresh out of a season of interviews, this behavior struck close to home for many of the extremely bright, promising leaders, which led to discussions of where else such intimidation tactics are used by leaders in business each day. And they asked the ultimate question: “Just why do they do that?”

My theories:

Someone Intimidated Them

Not just one someone, lots of them. Intimidation has become the norm in some cultures. So if they want to be an exec they learn to intimidate too, without considering the impact. I remember being coached shortly after my promotion to the executive ranks that it was time “to smile less.” I frowned at the demand, thanked her for the feedback, went back and smiled at my team, and kept on smiling at the strong results they produced.

Intimidation Gets Short-Term Results

After all, in a fast-paced environment, short-term results are sexy. If you’re in a hurry for results, just follow Ask Men’s “How To,” advice, including “let them fear your eyes, never be nice, and use your Brando voice.” It will work–for a minute.

They’re Scared

Act tough, and scare enough other people–no one will notice your fear.

Intimidation Is So Much Easier Than Leading Well

“Those people” are so hard to engage and motivate. Best just to scare them into doing what you need.

How to Respond to Intimidation

“I tried to go out for theater or theater arts, but I was too scared or too intimidated. But I had a lot of friends on the cross-country team that had great senses of humor.”Dana Carvey

This part is easy. Don’t let the turkeys get you down. Rise above the game. Be better than their silly intimidation tactics.

And most important: REMEMBER HOW IT FEELS.

I’m not sure why being intimidating results in amnesia. Intimidation sucks. Remember that feeling. Don’t pass it down the line.

How did you feel early in your career? What’s your stance now? How do we prevent the intimidation contagion from spreading?