Ever Been Told You’re Scary Or Intimidating?

Years ago, when I was an executive in the corporate world, I got a bit of insight into how others see me that had me scratching my head.

A young woman who had once worked for me (but didn’t at the time) described me as being ‘scary but cool’ – two words I wouldn’t have readily associated with myself, nor my personal brand. We were on good terms, so I asked her to explain.

She recalled that shortly before she’d joined my team from another department, I’d made a point of dropping by her desk to introduce myself. (I hadn’t been involved in the interviews, so had yet to meet her.) She said she’d found the encounter scary because, even though I was smiling and chatting, I was an older, senior executive and she was a very young, comparatively junior employee.*

It’s not just hierarchy…

Our conversation jogged my memory about a similar incident I’d had a couple of years before. Again, it was a young woman who gave me the insight – someone I’d hired fresh out of university to work as my press officer. We got on pretty well (or at least I thought we did) but only a few weeks into the job she started turning up late, phoning in sick and generally disengaging.

The time came for a serious discussion and that was when she revealed the problem: “I find you intimidating.”

I was so gob-smacked all I could utter was, “But why? I’ve spent time showing you the ropes, taken an interest in your work..” She replied, “It’s not that. It’s because you’re good at your job.”

That’s when I came to realise something…

In both situations, the issue of me being ‘scary’ or ‘intimidating’ wasn’t anything to do with what I said or how I behaved. Both women agreed I’d been nothing but courteous and welcoming.

The issue was more to do with where that person’s head was at and how they perceived me in relation to my job title and experience – things I couldn’t readily change, nor felt I had to. (My thought on hearing that I was good at my job was, ‘Well, I’m not going to get worse at it just to make you feel better’.)

It’s not just me…

This came to light again recently when, as part of working one-to-one with an executive, we gathered feedback on how he was seen by others. One person said, ‘As I got to know him better I could see how focused he was and I found that a bit intimidating.’

My client initially read the comment as he was intimidating – which didn’t sit at all well with him.

But then I pointed out that the person had said they were intimidated by his focus, making me wonder if they were un-focused, felt that was a negative thing, so felt threatened by him doing something they can’t. (I don’t know that as fact, because our feedback reports are entirely anonymised, but it’s certainly a feasible assumption.)

Another client who had feedback he was intimidating and couldn’t understand why had his eyes opened when I suggested his height may be the reason. He was a good few inches over six feet, so usually towered over people – which can seem intimidating. (I suggested he try sitting down for conversations as much as possible.)

Take a long, hard look

I’m not saying that if you’ve been called scary or intimidating you’re automatically off the hook.

But if you can replay your interaction with others back in your mind and honestly say you did nothing obviously scary or intimidating – in how you looked, sounded and acted – then maybe the issue sits on the other side of the table.

Have you ever been told you’re scary or intimidating? Did it leave you scratching your head? Or did you admit to yourself it might be true and do something about it? I’ve come clean about my experiences – fancy sharing yours with a comment below?

*She also said the ‘cool’ part came later once she realised I was definitely up for some banter – and was often the one instigating it.

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4 responses to “Ever Been Told You’re Scary Or Intimidating?”

  1. Paul Williams says:

    Great post Jennifer, and an important message for those of us who are ‘former senior executives’ looking for consulting gigs – all too often our prior experiences would be a huge benefit to less experienced executives and business owners, but they are just too scary (and lack obvious relevance).

    Enjoy the holiday!

    Kind regards

    • Jennifer Holloway says:

      Thanks Paul.

      I myself have been intimidated by a consultant’s expertise when I was in corporate life, but then I remembered, “The whole point is that they know more than me – that’s what we pay them for!”

  2. Matthew Cox says:

    Have a great holiday Jennifer
    I smiled at this story as I think I know one of the examples!

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