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?

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

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. Karin this post generates so much thought. It gets me to think how much non-verbal intimidation is actually going on out there. Not only that, but how much it silences people – which is the overall purpose. You’re right in all aspects, and I’ve seen those that intimidate because it’s easier. It’s a sad way to lead, really. Will definitely share to help people see these behaviors and stem the tide.

    As always, a great post.

  2. Karin, I agree with you they were led by intimidators so it’s all they know.

    Intimidators feel being vulnerable and compassionate is a sign of weakness.

    Unfortunately, they’ve got the thing ass backwards. Or is it back asswards?

  3. Karin,

    Great question and I believe a lot of it stems from creating a false sense of security. If bad leaders can intimidate, it hides their real uncertainty about an issue and falsely protects their position. More intimidating leaders are found out and are sidelined. Unfortunately, this takes time for things to unravel and there is a mess left in their path.


  4. Karen, I totally agree. In how response to how to respond to intimidation, you wrote: And most important: REMEMBER HOW IT FEELS…. This is something I remind my children every time they are on the receiving end of someone trying to exert power over them.. in sports, in studies, in scouts, as a patrol, from kids and more importantly, even from adults… I ask them to remember, albeit hard and hurtful, remember how they felt at this very moment and how they hate how it feels. And to remember it when they are in similar circumstances, especially in groups, so that they do not pass on and perpetuate those feelings to others. Their roles as leaders is to build others up so that they can work together, because together we accomplish so much more. I think it is a crucial lesson to learn and practice while they are young. I plan to have my teenage daughter and son watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk – I think there is so much to learn from it. Thanks for a great discussion!

  5. If someone has the power of a position in an organization or relationship, and then uses intimidation on top of that power (especially if there is a wide power differential), I instantly lose respect and trust for them and question their motivation and integrity.

    As a leader, I want people to follow because they believe in our cause, trust me and value our integrity as a team.

    • Renee, me too. It’s very hard for me to follow a leader like that, even when I “should” meaning they have position power.

  6. Hi Karin,

    I am leaning towards it is just easier because they get short term results (combination of above) and (here is the kicker) they see absolutely nothing wrong with their style.

    May I ask, with all your theories, (which I think are spot on) have you seen the most?

  7. Really good question to ask and discuss with your students. I think intimidation is a form of bullying which is a learned response. If we ourselves have experienced being pushed around or being yelled out we may not know another way to deal with disappointment or frustration.

    When I meet clients or participants in my programs who feel a need to intimidate me I just smile and allow them to vent. I don’t react and after I let them say their words, I may say that I am unable to deal with their issue at the moment and will get back to them. Or sometimes I say that I think there is a better way to address the challenge. And I refocus.

    Thanks Karin!

  8. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that fear can provide clarity by establishing a laser focus on a key priority. Because it is so effective due to our self preservation instinct, the only goal that is achieved is the one driven by fear and little else. Bigger problems come when fear is the primary motivational tool and everything is made to feel like a crisis, then the real priorities get lost in the midst of the confusion and stress. Adding stress on top of already stressful situations is a recipe for failure because it prevents people from doing their best work, helping others and sharing the real challenges.

    As I read this I also started wondering why some excellent leaders seem to use fear. I think this is rooted in one key driver: leaders have serious work to do- there is often a big downside for error or missed deadlines, there are big goals to achieve and usually not a lot of time or resources to support them. In trying to illustrate the seriousness of the work ahead sometimes the tone, body language, questions end up conveying the wrong intent. Leadership brings a weight to actions and reactions that is often underestimated.

    • Eric, Thanks so much for weighing in and expanding this conversation. You are absolutely right that fear does get attention. I would add, that leader better be sure she’s got it right and doesn’t need any additional thinking on the topic. Fear causes people to salute, not think. So glad you offered your thoughtful insights.

  9. Karin, really great post. I have experienced intimidation several times in several ways throughout my life, even from a person who I thought would be my collaboration partner and friend. The intimidation I experienced on several occasions was either explicit, critique on my personality or even implicit intimidation by shutting me out through abrupt avoidance after asking for clarity about certain very important issues. Implicit intimidation where people choose to avoid courageous conversations, however indirectly keep accusing you of untruths that serve only themselves, blocks any mature opportunity to dialogue truthfully and kindly to find resolution. It left me feeling sad. And … every time I have moved on with kindness and confidence as I realise how these people live their life in fear due to their own struggles, past histories and stories caused by irrational beliefs and insecurity. Let’s send them love and compassion and wish for them to find serene peace from within so they can start building healthy loving relationships. Although I always reflect on what I need to learn to become a better person, I also choose not to internalise or feel intimidated by other people’s fear anymore. Love Amy Cuddy by the way! Let’s keep smiling 🙂

    • Jacky, What an important perspective and reminder… and healthy point of view. What would happen if more of us responded to intimidation with compassion vs. fear. LOVE IT!

  10. Great topic, Karin!

    Who doesn’t feel intimidated at times? But it happened more when I was younger and unsure of myself. As I’ve gotten older, I’m more confident in my abilities, and as a result, I am not intimidated nearly as easily.

    Why do leaders try to intimate others? Because it works…and while it’s good to remind folks that intimidation can be a short-term win, I also think it’s important to instill confidence in other team members so that intimidation no longer works.

  11. Karin, I think this theory is a big part of the explanation: “Intimidation Gets Short-Term Results.” Many people tend to repeat behavior that yields rewards. If yelling makes the person jump and gets my task done, then the result is clear (the long term damage to the relationship is less tangible).

    • Bruce, sadly so true.. as leaders it’s so important that we understand the long-term impact of those short term results. Great add. Thank you. Looking forward to your guest post on Friday.

  12. I’m in complete agreement with all of the comments posted. Leaders that intimidate do so because they’ve learned that it is an effective tool to squash dissenting opinions early. for some leaders this is conscious behavior but I think for a larger group this is unconscious, learned behavior. Unfortunately, intimidation as a leadership philosophy usually results in team whose members are less willing to take chances that could achieve superior results. My experience is that leaders who intimidate are the ones who also get frustrated that there is little innovation on their own team.

    • Jason, So glad to have you join the conversation. I’m so with you…I see that too, intimidating leaders are oftent surprised (and get even more riled up) but the lack of innovation and creativity on their teams. It’s hard to be creative when you’re nervous. Much easier to do what they say. I do hope you will stop back again and share your insights with our LGL community.

  13. I think that sometimes ‘leaders’ are in such a hurry to move forward and control their agenda that they forget to ‘lead’. Building relationships takes time, but it pays off with changes that are sustained over time. It is sad that people see caring leaders as being unusual, when those individuals are just doing what is right – treating people with empathy and respect. Thanks for your post! I’m glad that you shared the incredible power of smiling! I think it should be a non-negotiable part of a leader’s tool-kit! It really helps set the tone.

  14. I’m with you, intimidation sucks. Amazes me that there are still leaders that think that it’s a form of motivation or tough love. I think it goes back to their role models when they were growing up in business. If it’s what they know, it’s what they do.

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