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Dealing with insecurity at work

Matthew Chittock

Matthew Chittock on what to do when one of your team’s insecurity is causing serious issues in the office

Stop and think about all the bad managers you’ve met in your career. Think back to the micromanagers who wouldn’t let you open an email on your own, the stress-heads whose default setting was pure rage and the authoritarians who triple-checked every single request for leave.

On the surface they might all sound very different. Yet there could well be one hidden link that connects their behaviour: insecurity.

“I think that most ‘bad managers’ or ‘scary managers’ – or whatever you want to call them – tend to suffer from insecurity,” says business author Jane Sunley. “And because they feel insecure you see a whole load of negative symptoms, which can be anything from gossiping about staff, or being so nervous they can’t make a clear decision, to pulling rank.”

One common example is the manager who won’t acknowledge any of their team members’ new ideas. As Sunley relates, they’re so insecure about someone having a better idea than them they’ll instantly shoot it down rather than support it and so help build a better business. 

At its core this insecurity could have emerged during a person’s formative years, or even through an uneven, or undermining relationship some time after.

It could also stem from company culture. Sunley says that if people have been at the sharp end of such behaviour on their rise to the top, they’ll probably direct it at others when they get there as well. No matter what the motives, dealing with an insecure manager is tough. So what practical steps can you take to tackle their behaviour?

“You have to make them feel in control,” says Sunley. “So there’s a lot of talking about ‘we’ – use terms like ‘we need to do this’ and keep bigging them up when they do things well.

“That can sound a bit pathetic, but insecure bosses need that kind of affirmation.” She adds that trying to take a grown-up, emotionally intelligent stance is vital. “Instead of directly criticising, which can make them feel defensive, it’s about addressing things in a non-conflict way,” she says.

Phrase it like ‘I thought we did that really well but I had an alternative thought about what we’re doing – can I tell you about it?’”

How to tackle your own insecurity

Of course, you might not be working for an insecure boss – in reality the insecure boss could well be you. Recognising that you’re making poor decisions, or managing others badly because you’re feeling insecure, might be tough: but it’s essential for moving forward for the good of your team.

“A good exercise is to think about your own strengths and limitations,” says Sunley. “It’s about accepting that everybody has things that they’re not very good at. That’s fine, and you don’t need to feel insecure about it, you can compensate by working with other people who have different strengths.”

It’s also worth remembering that your insecurity might not be down to your personality or past. It might in fact be a fairly rational response to the challenging situation you find yourself in.

For example, if redundancies are being made left, right and centre, or you’ve been promoted to a role you feel you’re not really qualified for, it’s unsurprising you might feel less than secure.

“It all comes down to having clarity about what you have to do,” says Jo James, business trainer and coach at AmberLife. “If you’re not clear on your goals and objectives then you haven’t got a real idea of what the company wants you to do. “When you’re a manager who’s clear on the goals and expectations coming from your bosses, then you can take a step back and think – OK, this is how I’m best going to manage the team.”

During particularly stressful times the people responsible for telling you what to do might not be 100% clear themselves. James believes this is where learning to ‘manage up’ comes into play. It’s also the time to ask questions to clarify what’s going on – even if others are nervous about doing so.

Whether it’s you or another team member who is feeling insecure – getting it out into the open is vital, for the good of everyone. As Sunley says, “Insecure managers mean staff aren’t free to flex their wings.” And a company in which people are nervous about being creative because their boss doesn’t want to look bad is certainly not a positive place to work.

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