It’s a common thing to be nervous around a new boss, a teacher, during a disagreement with a parent, or even in a conversation with an outgoing person who seems to have all the answers. Every one feels this way to different degrees during different stages of their life. But even as we mature to adulthood, many people still carry around a high level of fear of authority that’s inherently irrational. Here I’m going to discuss the source of being afraid of a ‘scary boss’, discuss why it’s irrational, and talk about what can be done about it. Note that I’m not talking about inherently hostile workplaces.
1. It’s like being scolded by your parents
For some, being called out by your boss, especially if it’s public can have the effect of absolutely crushing your self confidence. This is because from a very young age all of us have had authority figures that we’ve at one time or another disappointed or even been chewed out by. We learn to try and please even if we never succeed in doing so. This can lead to decreased self confidence over time to the point that when you eventually get confronted or even if you just fear being confronted your mind races back home to when you were a kid being put in the corner. Suddenly, you’re disappointing the whole family all over again.
2. And it’s not just with your boss
It can be any authority figure. Maybe you have an irrational fear of people who are experts (or seem to be) on some topic. Maybe you still can’t talk to your parents in a way that’s definitively you even though you’re a for real grown up type person now.
Fear of authority figures can be a crippling thing to deal with because it triggers your fight or flight instinct which is proven to cause people to perform more poorly than they normally would.
3. Irrational fear of confrontation can actually lead to more confrontation
If the source of an original confrontation is something you did or something you’ve been asked to do then fear of authority, fear of screwing up, can actually cause you to make more mistakes rather than less.
This sounds horribly unfair, I know, and it is. Most people who have trouble with authority figures, rational or irrational, just want to do right. They want to perform in a way that’s impressive and that everyone will approve of. In the workplace and in life this is completely natural. When we don’t live up to these self imposed expectations we can often feel ashamed. Sometimes we feel ashamed before we’ve even begun because we’re anticipating failure.
4. Congratulations, everyone thinks you’re incompetent
Okay, they probably really don’t. The truth is that authority figures usually aren’t out to get you, personally. Almost all confrontations with authority figures (minor or major) is about some rule or the completion of some task. Your boss usually just wants some task completed and done correctly which leads us to a big point that most people don’t think about.
5. Bosses have bosses too
Unless you’re the Senior VP at your company then chances are your boss actually has a boss of his or her own. So, when you view your boss as “the Authority” you’re actually giving them way more power than they probably deserve. After all, don’t they have their own boss? Aren’t they getting pressure from the top on their end. Possibly their stress or their reaction to a mistake you made has nothing to do with you being a horrible employee who can’t do anything right and has much more to do with the pressure they’re under. In this sense, the two of you are in exactly the same position.
That should tell you something and that something is you’re both human beings trying to get things done and you’re both under pressure.
6. The belief that an authority is the authority
Your boss isn’t your mother or father. They’re not God. They can’t cause your friends to hate you or your mate to leave you. They’re a person ordained by a company to organize and direct your labor. In fact, fear of you boss may have as much to do with the notion that you’re disappointing your whole family and hometown as it does the specific incident itself. It’s like they represent not themselves but a mounting of others behind them, as if they represent everyone.
They don’t. A person is a person and they represent their own attitudes and behaviors, biases and desires. Unravelling them from the great eye in the sky is the first thing a person has to do if they want to shake loose from an irrational fear of authority and assert themselves in their own lives.
An authority is a person, not an all powerful sky being.
7. How to make your best self shine through
Understanding the dynamics we’ve already talked about and being honest with yourself about your own reactions to authority is really the best way to get ahead of the game in presenting an authentic you in your workplace and that’s not just lip service. Ultimately, this is all about how you react to your own feelings and mitigate confrontation. However, there are also some specific things you can do either by yourself or with others that can help you practice overcoming fear of authority. Like everything that actually works, some of these may sound silly but who cares? The purpose is to realign your thinking and have a better life.
- Talk to yourself like a crazy person – I believe in this one, personally. If you know you’re going to have to have a difficult conversation then go through it out loud in front of a mirror. Address every point and counterpoint you can think of and develop a reply that answers the question without being defensive. Practice your voice control and body language and know when to be quiet. You don’t need to talk too much. Just formulate your best answer, practice it, and move on. Some people also call this role playing.
- Take theater lessons or do improv – There’s nothing like being on a stage in front of lots of people to get you used to controlling your fear and speaking with purpose. Additionally, there’s nothing like doing improv in front of a supportive group to help a person put aside fear and be in the moment. Also, you’ll make friends.
- The power of self talk – Self talk is really just saying positive things about yourself to yourself and it really works. If you have always thought of yourself as someone who’s terrible at confrontation then start telling yourself otherwise. If you’ve always been scared of authority figures then start repeating affirmations to yourself that there’s no reason to be.