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The Insecure Manager

Situation: You’ve been labelled a ‘star performer’ - all eyes are on you, and with your next promotion, you’re also leading a team! You’re now used to being the one creating and sending across documents/work, and suddenly it’s about putting the team before you in many situations. One of your team members is an individual who has demonstrated outstanding performance ever since he/she joined the organization.

Very unexpectedly, you find yourself feeling a sense of competitiveness with a team member, some amount of self-doubt and/or exhibiting somewhat irrational behaviour. Initially, you find external reasons to explain this behaviour, however, eventually, reality hits – Maybe you are uncertain/anxious about your position, likability and reputation.

Does this sound familiar? A personal experience or something you have witnessed at your workplace and/or around you?

Before writing about this, I did a google search on ‘The insecure manager’ and to my surprise didn’t find as much on it. Personally, I have experienced this ‘insecure manager syndrome’, and so have multiple other leaders/managers I have known of.

What could lead to such insecurity?

  • Change in what ‘success’ means: We’re conditioned to believe that success is equivalent to individual contribution, achieving a target, actually ‘doing’ something oneself. Whereas, often in leadership roles, success is about knowing when to step back and letting others shine.

  • Individual disposition - An individual with the inherent disposition of being a perfectionist, action-oriented, highly achievement-driven, with a huge need to be in ‘control’, is likely to experience some anxiety when letting go of control.

  • Competitive work environment - Imagine scenarios where both the leader and team member have both individual & collective sales targets. Whilst healthy competition is great, too much competition can trigger stress, backstabbing and create an overall de-energizing environment. 

What are some ways in which insecurities manifest?

  • Being closed to learning - Insecure leaders dislike coming across as insignificant or incompetent, so they may tend to overcompensate by pretending they know-it-all.

  • Aversion to helping others grow - Insecure leaders see people as working for them and not with them. They may not enjoy someone on their team receiving public recognition. When you invest in the growth of those around you, you are equipping them to be better, smarter, and quicker --a threatening idea to the insecure.

  • Disrespecting others - An insecure leader would work hard to gain respect for himself/herself--sometimes even by belittling others to put themselves ahead. If one feels inadequate, disrespecting others can help elevate your own status.

As a leader/manager, how can one manage this insecurity? As a team member reporting into someone who is experiencing uncertainty, what can you do to change the situation?

  • Awareness - at three levels – An understanding of one’s own purpose, strengths, development areas as well as the team membersAwareness of our thoughts/feelings in such situations. There may be a tendency to resist the negative thoughts, but resistance will only lead to more manifestation of the uncertainty/insecurity syndromeAwareness of the big picture & vision - what are we as a team working towards? In light of this purpose, what’s the best way forward? Making the big picture a filter can help exude the right behaviour/take the right actions despite the temporary temptation to let the small mind take over.

  • Acceptance – If you find yourself feeling threatened or insecure, accept it. Know that this is normal. The important thing is to manage the feeling and do what’s right vs. criticize yourself for feeling it. If you find your leader/manager exhibiting some of the ‘insecure leader’ behaviours – also accept it. Think of how you can make the situation pleasant and comfortable for both of you. In either of the two cases, accept and focus on ‘how’ – not so much on ‘why.

  • Re-define success for yourself – As a leader/manager, understanding that success is no longer only about your ability to achieve and solve problems, but also about the team’s performance and contribution is half the battle one.

  • Put yourself in the shoes of the other – Often, an inadvertent reaction to insecurity is the tendency to blame the other. However, these are the very moments when we need to drop the blame and view the situation from the other individual’s perspective. Your team member is probably only trying to work hard, contribute and make a mark.

  • Feel part of another’s success (Mudita) – Sage Patanjali, the father of Yoga said something profound in the first chapter of his text – "By practising the habits of friendliness (Maitri), compassion (Karuna), happiness (MUDITA) and virtues and by being indifferent to misery and sinful vices (Upekshanam), your mind is pleasant." (translated into English). Whilst this has a deep meaning, Happiness or Mudita is about feeling PART of another individual’s success or good deeds. Sometimes, when others do good work, we may tend to feel a sense of jealousy or insecurity. However, being part of this work and helping them through it is the way to remain centred.

  • Realize this is ONLY a part of your life (impermanence) – Feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and/or insecurity could rise from our attachment to an outcome, situation or person (both within or outside of work). However, the realization that everything is temporary brings stability. Every emotion/thought is like a wave in the ocean – it fades away eventually, i.e. we can’t hold on to it. Similarly, such emotions at work are bound to arise. However, we can manage these skilfully through our awareness, acceptance and understanding of the big picture.

As a team member, if you find your manager experiencing any of these symptoms, be compassionate, find ways to give your manager/leader some genuine praise, and of course if you feel comfortable – talk about how his/her behaviour is impacting you (focus on the issue and your feeling vs. personalizing it).

After all, a workplace where we’re driven by a larger vision and take pride in making each other successful vs. look for ways to put each other down is also likely to be one with greater innovation, enhanced collaboration and better results!

Would love to hear your thoughts on this! For conversations and insight-exchange, feel free to write to me.

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