Working for an insecure manager can be difficult.
It would be nice to believe that all of the people we work for are supportive, confident and effective leaders. Unfortunately, it just ain’t so! (Just ask some of my coaching clients or training participants).
This can come about because of the “Peter Principle”, which is commonly known as promoting people until they reach a level of incompetence.
In other words, promoting people based on their results now, rather than what they’ll need to be able to do in their new role.
It’s common to see people who are excellent at doing the work. Then when they need to manage the work and the people, they potentially aren’t so good, and their confidence takes a big hit.
Learn More: Moving From Doer to Leader: The Top Challenges.
Common Signs of An Insecure Manager
Regardless of how your manager came to have their role, it’s good to start by looking at some of the common signs of an insecure boss.
You might be mystified that someone ever hired them for the role in the first place.
But it’s probably likely that they used to get good results at some point in the past (or at least did well at pretending!) before their promotion.
Some of the common signs I notice when dealing with insecure managers include:
- A need for control. Insecure or unconfident managers will often “clamp down” on their people, to try to control everything so nothing goes wrong and they don’t become exposed.
- Dominant behaviour. Sometimes insecure managers can start displaying dominant behaviour. This might mean talking over people, criticising, yelling or even bullying. This helps them keep their people feeling fearful in an effort to make them more compliant.
- Lack of delegation. Wanting to have greater control means sometimes hoarding the important work, instead of delegating.
- Being the figurehead. Your manager might be insecure, but they’d feel worse if you took the limelight. So, they keep important relationships to themselves, instead of letting their people build relationships with other leaders.
- Laying blame. When you blame others, you put them on the back foot and deflect attention from yourself.
- Taking the credit. An insecure manager may take credit for the team’s achievements, instead of passing it on. They don’t want their team getting all the attention!
- Not asking for input. When you ask for input, you’re giving your team a voice. This can make an insecure manager feel exposed, so they often won’t ask for or take on suggestions.
Well, it can be scary feeling insecure in a leadership role. So when it happens, that’s what we see coming out – bad behaviour.
Learn More: Are You an Insecure Leader? Watch for These 10 Signs.
First: Understand What Your Goal Is
If you’ve seen the signs above and think insecurity might be at the root of the problems with your boss, it’s time to look at what you can do about it.
But first, it’s important to understand your goal.
If your goal is to change your manager and “fix” them, you’re probably out of luck. You can’t force them to stop being insecure, and you’ll waste a lot of energy in the process.
So what is your end game?
Do you want to stay in this position to learn new skills or gain experience for your next role?
Or do you want to stay long enough to finish a project, or support your people to achieve a milestone in their development?
Perhaps you are preparing yourself for a sideways move to a different role in your current organisation.
These are all fine goals. So what’s yours?
Be Careful of Damaging Yourself
Without a clear goal for staying in this unpleasant situation, you may be causing harm to yourself.
You may damage your confidence, reduce your skills or ruin your feelings of self-worth. All of these things can suffer when you’re working for an insecure manager.
And then, you may find it very difficult to move somewhere else where you are valued, because you’ve started to buy-in to some of the commentary and behaviour from your insecure boss.
Self-esteem is big, so don’t stay too long.
Know what you’re getting out of the situation. Create a plan, then move on.
Too many leaders wait. They wait for their boss to get found out and fired, or to move to another role. That might take a while… or never happen at all.
And while you wait … you’re putting up with poor behaviour and potentially damaging your self-esteem.
Learn More: Leadership Confidence Problem? Let’s Diagnose It.
Actions to Help With Your Insecure Manager Situation
OK. You and I know that you can’t stay in this situation forever.
But while you’re in it, you might as well try to make it more bearable.
So here are some things to try to help with this problem. It may require some experimentation. See what helps, and ditch what doesn’t.
1. Find Out What They Need, and How You Can Help
When working with an insecure manager, it’s extremely important to find out what they want to achieve.
Showing interest in their goals and aspirations can help to reduce the perceived threat that you offer.
Although you could argue that you should do this with any leader you work for (and I tend to agree), I find it doubly important for insecure managers.
It demonstrates that you’re on their side, instead of focusing only on your own goals.
Self-interest destroys trust, and trust works both ways.
2. Show Appreciation and Recognise Their Contribution
It may feel a little weird showing appreciation for a manager who is frustrating you with their insecure behaviour.
The idea is to keep reducing the perceived threat. Especially if you are an ambitious, capable leader who is generally well-regarded.
Everyone wants to be appreciated and recognised. You can build their confidence and reduce the threat of self-interest by showing appreciation upwards, instead of just downwards to your own people.
Small, positive actions over time tend to build trust, so these little steps can add up.
Learn More: Start Being Trustworthy For Your Team: Here’s How.
3. With An Insecure Manager, Make It Their Idea
Insecure managers can often come across as quite ego driven. They may want to be “the boss” and run the show, which can cause them to display dominant behaviour.
This could be arrogance or a huge ego, but it can also come from a place of deep insecurity.
In order to influence an insecure manager, it can be useful to make it seem like suggestions you make are actually their ideas.
One way to do this is to let them know how they have influenced your thinking.
“After our conversation the other day, it made me realise that maybe it would work if we did <some thing>. What do you think?”
“You mentioned recently that you’d like to see <something>. What about letting me help with that?”
If you can plant the seed that they were a key part of the process, they may feel a lot more comfortable letting you run with a suggestion, rather than have you appearing as the smartest person in the room.
4. Check In Often… and Then Less and Less
If you work for an insecure manager, you may resent having to check in with them to get their opinion. However, it’s a key part of building trust.
When an insecure manager notices you going off alone, they begin to worry.
That you might show them up. Make them look bad. Make a mistake.
Instead, check in with them often. Even if in your mind, you know you shouldn’t really need to.
Over time, they will hopefully allow you more autonomy as they can see you aren’t trying to run off by yourself. But once again, they need that trust.
Check in often, and before you know it, they might feel comfortable letting you operate more independently.
5. Leave Your Ego at the Door
Perhaps the hardest step involved in working for an insecure manager is to stop trying to “win”.
Competent leaders can become extremely frustrated and resentful when they are held back by an insecure boss.
This can result in competitive behaviour, where leaders want to show their boss what they can do, and show that they’re better!
While it might feel good in the short term, this often makes things worse. Insecure managers may double down on their poor behaviour, in an attempt to squash the threat.
Instead, try to cultivate a sense of empathy for the plight of your insecure boss. Consider what is driving their behaviour and keep that in mind, rather than assuming the behaviour is coming from spite or evil intent.
This can help you regulate your own emotions and respond constructively, even in the face of insecure leadership.
The iceberg model can be a useful way to do that, and you can read more about it here: Want to Build Empathy? Use the Iceberg Model.
6. When Working For an Insecure Manager, Know Your Boundaries
It’s never going to be fun working for an insecure manager, and it’s (hopefully) not going to be forever. Even so, you need to know when enough is enough.
You can do this by setting clear boundaries about what you need to do your role, and your manager’s behaviour.
This means understanding:
- What you need to be able to do, to be able to lead your team effectively
- How much autonomy is enough for you to feel valued and respected; and
- When your insecure manager’s controlling or otherwise poor behaviour goes too far.
It might be you need to have a conversation to help you understand where the boundaries lie. However, when you set clear boundaries, you can more easily decide whether your situation is workable or untenable.
This also means you can pick your battles more easily, because you’ll know what to fight for, and what to let go.
You can learn more about setting good boundaries in this podcast episode: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #104: Why Leaders Must Set Boundaries at Work.
7. Find Positive Support
Working for an insecure manager is not easy, and can be draining.
One of the best things about working for a good leader is that they can show you how to lead, and help you grow. But you don’t have that, so you need to find it somewhere else.
See if you can find a mentor and trusted colleagues to support you in developing skills, and maintaining your confidence levels.
If you’re looking for a mentor, just be careful about finding one inside your organisation. This could make your manager feel even more insecure, and exacerbate their behaviour.
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with (according to author and leader Jim Rohn), so make sure you surround yourself with positive influences to help you along the way.
When Working For An Insecure Manager, Look Out For Yourself
After reading this, you might be annoyed that the suggestions above are not a silver bullet, or a quick fix.
That’s because you can’t make your manager change. You can only change yourself.
Look out for your own goals, and know when it’s time to say goodbye. Then, you can implement the strategies above to try to make the journey as comfortable as possible for you, and your team.
Have you worked for an insecure manager? What did you do? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!