Trickle Down Intimidation

Mark shuts the door and begins the emergency meeting. What he’s got to say isn’t easy, but these guys can handle it. That’s why they “get paid the big bucks.” He minces no words. Stock prices, competitive pressures, time to get it together. NOW. The intimidation factor is high. Fix it fast or else.

He would NEVER speak this way to the front line. He’s an inspiring speaker and the troops love him. He trusts his leaders will translate the message to the front line well.

Grace leaves Mark’s meeting a bit shaken, but the message is clear. Time to call an emergency huddle with her direct reports. They were in the midst of executing plans to address key issues, but she worries it won’t be fast enough. She needs to show progress NOW. She feels her job is on the line.

She doesn’t usually take the fear and intimidation route, but she needs to get her team’s attention. Plus, her team can handle it. They’re seasoned leaders and they understand the pressure. She would never NEVER speak that way to the front line. She trusts her team will translate the message well.

Bill leaves Grace’s meeting a bit shocked. “Wow,” he thinks. “She NEVER acts this way. She doesn’t even seem to want our input. She just told us what to do.” Bill’s concerned his team leaders won’t buy into her plan. After all, it’s been a crazy couple of months and they’re all about to tip over.

But the situation is serious, Time to be a good soldier and just salute. He’s scared too. His mortgage is still underwater, and his daughter is headed to college next year. This is no time to stand out as a naysayer. He would NEVER let the front-line see his stress. But, he trusts his managers will get the message and translate it well.

Bill calls a meeting of his team leaders and lays it all on the line. It’s an execution issue and they need to fix it now, a little bit of intimidation can’t hurt. He needs the team to know he’s serious. He hands everyone a report with the names of everyone below goal.

“I want you to fix this, by holding one-on-one coaching with everyone on this list today. Then report back to me on each person. I want to know if it’s a will issue or a skills issue.” Bill knows he’s being a bit rough. He would NEVER talk that way to the front line. But he’s got good team leaders who know how to handle this stuff. They’ll figure out a way to coach to the right skills and do something fun to motivate.

One of Bill’s team leaders, Kathy, gets the outlier report and hears his message loud and clear. She leaves the meeting and then…

Intimidation Amplifies as it Rolls Down Hill

The same leaders who carefully craft inspiring messages for the frontline, may be undercutting their efforts by inadvertent trickle down intimidation. Fear is contagious. Leaders watch the level above them and take their cues on how to act and what to say.

They also fill in the blanks.” If THIS is what they ARE telling me, then what they AREN’T sharing must be even worse.”

“Hmm…this behavior made these guys successful. I want to be successful too, I’d better toughen up.”

Each leader puts their finger prints on the message, and the light touch of intimidation, becomes a frightening slap at the front-line. The folks closest to the work do as they’re told, afraid to share the ideas that would solve the problem.

Be careful not to inadvertently delegate your translation. Treat your team like you want them to treat others.

Say what you mean in the way you want it to be heard at the front-line.

Posted in Communication, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , , , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Karin,

    Good leaders need to be transparent on what the conditions are and what the objectives are going forward. Intimidation doesn’t support either of those and, in fact, may overstate and overwhelm others, creating even bigger issues. Remaining calm, highlighting the situation, and outlining key goals and where people need to engage to resolve are what separates real leaders from shouting leaders.

    Great points in the story. Thanks!


  2. Jon, Thanks so much. Totally agree…. we need to be real about the situation (no fake talk), but at the say time say it in way that multiplies creativity and innovation. Fear stifles people from speaking their truth, which may contain valuable solutions.

  3. This problem stems all the way up the food chain.

    What you describe as coaching, doesn’t seem to be coaching at all. It sounds like telling, instructing, advising, etc.

    If employers used the coach approach I teach my clients, they wouldn’t have this atmosphere of fear.

    The scenario you painted exists throughout organizations, large and small.

    • Steve, exactly… but coaching’s a term that gets kicked around a lot… please “coach” them. Thanks as always for your comments… I do believe this is a universal challenge, one this community can help to impact.

  4. Powerful story to illustrate an important point. I was brought in to help turn around a division that was an unwelcome pocket of innovation in a very traditional organization. I asked them what their change plan was when they first rolled it out and why they thought it was failing. “I don’t know,” I was told by the SVP. “We had a conference call with the key senior stakeholders and asked them to move forward the message and I know it was done on our schedule – we had process in place to ensure that happened.” Yikes.

    It’s so hard to give up some of that sparkle and shine for hard conversations all the way down the line.

  5. Karin,
    Thanks so much for a spot-on article. In my company this is exactly how we are being led right now and it’s awful. I am responsible for a group of over 200 and my driving focus every day is to treat them right, and let the results follow. That being said, your article is a great reminder to all leaders that words matter, and once they have left your mouth it’s very difficult to control them.

    I’m interested to know if others have faced a similar situation, and how did they deal with it? My boss and I both agree that our current senior leadership is demoralizing their front line leaders, but we don’t know what to do about it. Ideas?

    Thanks again!

  6. Hi Karin,

    I do believe the best leaders are buffers, taking the intimidation, but delegating responsibilities in positive ways. Unfortunately, this may be why organizations lose some of their best leaders. No one wants to work in an intimidating environment for.

  7. A very powerful illustration, Karin.

    This addresses the quintessential question of communication: how can we accurately convey what we really mean (assuming we know what we really mean).

    Every person in Mark’s meeting heard his message a little differently because it affected each one of them a little differently. Their responses will all be different…

    In my former organization, the boss handled a similar situation like this: he called his direct reports to him and told them exactly what was going on. And then he called an all-employee conference that was sent via video teleconferencing to satellite offices where he presented the same message, word for word.

    We still had employees going to the various levels of management trying to get a better handle on what that message meant for them, but the original words were owned by the boss. It helped keep the message focused.

  8. Teaching and feeding off fear is dangerous. When emotions get involved then creativity gets stunted. What happens then? The worst fears become true. When you can deal in just facts and not take it personally like Don Miguel Ruiz writes about in “The Four Agreements,” then level heads stay out ahead and are allowed to create solutions instead of fix any “problems.”

    Sue Bock

  9. Our communication is reflective on who we are and what we stand for. If we communicate by barking out threats, then we will be known as a bully who thrives on intimidation.

    We need to share news and information in an assertive way that explains clearly our message while still being respectful. Mark has no respect for others or himself. He is modeling aggressive communication and being a bully. That leadership behavior is permeating the entire organization. Growth will be limited. Innovators will leave.

    Great post, Karin!

  10. Karin – If you intended or not, the pun “Grace leaves Mark’s meeting a bit shaken” is brilliant. Grace did indeed leave Mark’s meeting. In fact, I think she never entered.

  11. You painted a great picture of this unfortunate reality…so often leaders “delegate the translation” and lead with intimidation. Wow – such a great reminder. Thanks for another provocative post!

  12. Majority here agree with the bad behavior of the so called leader in this topic. However, so many organizations across the US hire these types of individuals in their leadership roles. That reflects their entire mentality. In the same manner that many individuals like to go and work for the same people that intimidate them. Today, majority in the workforce are still ‘Yes Man/Madam’ because they are afraid in losing their highly coveted positions or pay – that will provide sustain egos and high level of life-style.

    HPO – High Performing Organizations must invest with the right people in the organization and train them with quality of communication, business acumen, plus high level of professionalism and ethics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.