Question: Dealing with an insecure manager

What advice do you have for a team whose members generally feel that the manager has a heightened sense of insecurity.

She feels threatened by challenges to her ideas no matter how simple the matter, as though her authority, not the idea itself, was being challenged.

She sometimes avoids an individual completely, after a disagreement on a topic or a pushback to her agenda.


8 Expert Insights

Unfortunately, you've identified one of the most intractable workplace problems to be found.

I've coached and counseled others facing this situation and I wish I could tell you that things subsequently improved.  In my experience, they did not; or at least not in any significant way.

The problem is that the insecurities are deeply embedded in the individual and originated in his or her formative years.  They aren't just insecure in the workplace; they carry that insecurity with them in all aspects of their lives.  Some of them never find a way to address them.

So, it's likely that there is very little you can do to rid another person of his/her insecurities.  If this is correct, you must either resign yourself to adjusting your behaviors to minimize the resulting problems -- which almost certainly means you will not be able to perform to your fullest capabilities and develop professionally to your satisfaction -- or you must think about moving on to a better situation.  You may hope that more senior managers recognize what's going on and take corrective action but, honestly, that rarely happens.  

In my own career, when I've worked under bad managers, I've moved on.  Looking back, I'm glad I did.

Good luck!

Maturity is an ideal quality in any leader/manager. Apparently, she is not comfortable in her own skin. Here are some tips for the team members:

First, abandon any thoughts or hope of fixing her.  Although many of us secretly believe we can fix almost anything —  we cannot fix other people.  Only she can change herself with the help of a professional. Whatever lies behind someone else’s lack of confidence or insecurity is beyond our full understanding — that is, it’s guess-work — so don’t go there. Better to work on a coping strategy with such a boss.

Avoid any behavior that is likely to foster her feelings of uncertainty and insecurity. Look for opportunities to affirm her accomplishments, sound decisions, good advice, and positive behavior. Look for ideas and initiatives that she and the team can both share and can pursue as a partnership. Having a sense of shared commitment to something makes a bright idea seem less threatening to an insecure manager.

Also, do not engage in frequent group discussions expressing negative thoughts, criticisms, assessments, and frustrations concerning your boss.  Such negative chatter has a maddeningly predictable tendency to somehow circle back to the last person you would wish to share it with: your boss.

Dealing with an insecure manager requires attention to detail and a willingness to sacrifice your own ego to boost her: Offer Assistance, Show Appreciation, Acknowledge Positive Traits, and Share Credit.

Each team member just needs patience and the ability to see things for what they are. Because if they get caught up in her insecurities, take it personally, become defensive or react, then it can become a toxic workplace. Keep it professional and non-emotional if you can. You’ll come out feeling good and on top in the end.

Agree with everything above and...evaluate whether your career path is in jeopardy by being managed by this person. If it is, take responsibility and create and execute an exit plan -- exit without dissing the manager.

Dealing with insecure managers can feel like a minefield. You just never know if and how and when you will set them off. Like most things, insecurity occurs on a continuum. Those who are insecure to a point of paranoia and extreme dysfunction do not belong in the organization. The courageous thing to do with such individuals is to make a fact-based case to their boss.

For more normal levels of insecurity, one simple technique that might work is to ask their permission before you offer a contrary point of view. Usually, I would preface the permission-asking with a play-back of their stance.  Here's an example:

"I understand you feel the team should all come in and work this weekend so we can finish the project. You're concerned that if we don't push hard, the reputation of our department will suffer. Do I have the gist of your perspective?"

(Following confirmation):  "Would you be open to hearing a different perspective on this matter?"

I cannot remember a time when somebody said "NO!" to my asking permission. By asking permission, there is a subtle but powerful message that since they've given permission, and since you've done them the courtesy of listening to their viewpoint, the least they can do is entertain your idea.  No guarantees, but it may help diminish their defensive shields.

In speaking a contrarian view I would include areas of agreement and also cite an aspect of the situation that might not be readily apparent. Using the above example: "I'm sure we all support you in wanting to look good to the rest of the organization, and I further agree that we'll need to go above and beyond to finish on time. At the same time, you may not be aware of just how low morale has fallen. I'm afraid that a mandatory weekend of work will harm our culture and undermine performance. So here's what I'm thinking..."  If nothing else, such speaking might put the morale issue on the manager's radar.

You have received some good advice in the answers above; and I wonder if there is still room to explore a more direct approach, of one sort or another.

One habit that is unhelpful in the workplace, one perpetrated by too many get-to-the-point Type A's (like me sometimes), is to presume a colleague will assume assent with most of an idea or plan if we zero in with our criticism on one part. I find it's useful to state agreement explicitly, and in this case perhaps bending over backward to cite specific elements of an idea, before honing in on any point on which you see room for improvement.

Inclusive language also helps, e.g., "I see this challenge to getting this accomplished - how might we get around that challenge?" The "how might we" makes clear you are not taking over the idea, and that you are willing to help.

If these efforts are not successful, you owe it to your organization to get on her manager's calendar and consult with him/her. That is the person who needs the team to be at top performance, and who has the responsibility to his/her direct report for professional development. A manager who cannot take constructive criticism graciously, who is overly defensive, and who will not engage with her staff, is no help to the business.

Best wishes!

So far, I'm in agreement with the comments made by everyone.  Clearly, a situation like this has many parts that need to be fully understood and addressed.

I'd like to offer a different approach.  This one is not a slam dunk for every insecure boss situation but it is one that I found myself in years ago.  Essentially, I had been hired by a man who possessed all the insecure characteristics you described.  His intelligence and understanding of the industry was what landed him in the global VP spot, not his ability to develop productive relationships.

I realized, after making a whole host of mistakes, that his insecurities were rooted in his feeling of not rising through the ranks as many others had.  Therefore, he felt like an outsider in his own company.  He was not looking for 'yes' people to surround himself with, he was looking for people he could trust.  I took an interest in a few subjects he was particularly well versed in and began developing a relationship as a collaborator and supporter to the things he was most passionate about.

Ultimately, I was able to have fairly open conversations with him acting more as a sounding board than someone who was his equal.  He, in turn, began asking for my opinions on things that the rest of the team had already identified as 'issues'.

This approach of building trust is not a quick fix.  In my boss's case, it took 9 months before the rest of us started seeing a change in his willingness to engage the team- discuss issues, accept feedback and be comfortable that we were all working for the same thing.

It can certainly be frustrating to have a superior that is displaying behavior that screams insecurity.

I think that Mr. Ganduri gave you good advice.

I would add that you consider adopting an empathetic mindset. There are times when we are all insecure for one reason or another. Remembering how that feels, even though you may not react in the same way, will help you understand why she reacts in the way she does. Being empathetic will allow you and those on your team to respond with grace. And even though you may not say anything directly, my guess is she will feel that support. Perhaps then the situation will get better.

I also agree with Mr. Ganduri's comprehensive response.

Insecurity can come from deep care for doing the right thing and wanting to meet customer needs. If you can find a way to share this commitment to high quality work and commitment to customers - find the common ground - you may be able to find a path to build a more trusting relationship. This trust may reduce the insecurity that the boss is experiencing. Many bosses feel insecure because of a commitment to doing good work and a fear that others may not meet their rigorous standards. In many cases, as you prove you are up to the challenge of meeting those standards, the insecurity will mitigate.

Wishing you a smooth path forward in dealing with this difficult boss.