Being assertive at work is a great quality. You can stand up for what you believe in, advocate for yourself and for others, and be sure that credit is given where it’s due. But when does assertiveness cross over into the territory of being intimidating?
Sometimes, assertiveness can go too far and can make people feel afraid to state their opinion and contradict you. A healthy environment of debate is essential to a productive and innovative business environment, so there’s really no room for intimidation in the workplace. So what should you do if you get this feedback at work from your peers or superiors?
Here are five steps to reforming your unapproachable image and getting back on track.
1. Get all the details.
“You must first understand what it is exactly that your peers or superiors perceive as intimidating,” explains Charina L. Flores, VP of HR for the Barbelo Group. She suggests asking for specifics. “Our brain tends to reject or dislike people or something that is too perfect or demands perfection from us. Social Psychology calls this the Pratfall Effect. The Pratfall Effect happens when a person makes a mistake and, in doing so, becomes more likable. Admitting that you are not perfect and need help understanding how people perceive you can give you the Pratfall Effect.” In other words, you can start combating the perception that you’re intimidating by admitting a small amount of fault and asking people to explain how your behavior affects them. “Being open and authentic to others, and giving them a reason for your actions not only humanizes you but also increases your likeability,” says Flores. She also points out that self-awareness is critical to personal growth, so knowing exactly which of your actions is making others uncomfortable will be worth it in the long run.
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2. Consider what others bring to the table.
Part of what makes people give off that intimidating vibe is an unwillingness to acknowledge that others have ideas that are worth considering. “It’s important to be able to accept and value contributions from others, and to not act as if you can singlehandedly ‘run the show,’” notes Ferne Traeger, career coach, psychotherapist and founder of Beyond the Boardroom. “This is potentially a problem not only because it repels others, but also because it doesn’t give them the opportunity to contribute and feel valued.” It’s true that if one person is dominating a team, the other members will become less invested, feeling as if their contributions don’t matter or won’t be acknowledged. “What is critical,” says Traeger, “is that others have the opportunity to struggle, learn and grow.”
[Related: Break These 5 Bad Office Habits]
3. Work on your relationships with your colleagues.
In the same vein, being part of a team means having relatively good, friendly relationships with your coworkers. “This isn’t about being best friends,” cautions Karlyn Borysenko, Principal at Zen Workplace. “This is about having more informal bonds and allowing them to see a different side of you.” The more personable you are with others, the harder it is for them to be nervous around you. “Get to know them on a more personal level and that fear will start to go away. It brings humanity back into the equation!”
4. Ask for feedback, and keep asking.
“If you’ve gotten feedback before that you come across intimidating, ask for more feedback,” says Coach Colene, career coach and HR professional. Colene recommends being clear that you don’t intend to be intimidating, signaling that you’re open to working on the problem, and actively requesting more information. Ask questions like: “Was it what I said, or how I said it?” and “What would make the situation better?” Colene notes that you need to “be really open and set goals to make specific behavioral changes. All of business is about building the best, most impactful relationships you can. It’s hard to do so if people are intimidated or scared of you.”
5. Rework your image.
Certain small actions can have a big impact on how others perceive you in general. Alison Popp, Talent Programs Manager at Influitive, says you should take the time to “build the brand you want” for yourself, or craft the way you want others see you. “If you want to be less intimidating, take practical steps that rework your image in another way using things like body language, emails, less curtness in interactions etc.” One strategy you can try is to take a little more time with each workplace interaction than you normally would. “You don’t need to be a sap,” says Popp, “but you can take a moment to listen and think about how your behaviour affects others and how you are being perceived.” She warns “not to swing too far the other way,” though, because it could seem disingenuous if you’re suddenly interested in every little detail of people’s lives if you weren’t before. More than anything, just take the time to listen to what your colleagues are saying, and let them know you’re hearing them.