3 tricks for dealing with a physically intimidating boss

Mar 8, 2016 at 4:00 p.m. ET
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Today I'm answering a question about how to deal with a physically intimidating boss. 

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I was happy in my job and company until we got a new boss. He’s six feet four inches tall and towers over me, as I’m only five feet three four inches. He has a number of practices that intimidate me. I haven’t brought them up because we’ve all been told he’s “sorting out the winners from the losers,” and I’m afraid I’m giving him ammunition to fire me.

When I’m working on a project on my computer, he comes up behind my chair and taps me on the shoulder. This makes me jump, and he always looks at me as if to say, “Have you got something to hide?” This rattles me, and if he then asks me the questions that led him to interrupt me, I frequently stumble over the answers. When I’m talking on the phone, he stands immediately in front of my desk and stares at me until I finish. His presence makes me lose my train of thought. When I hang up, he immediately launches into a critique of how I handled the call. If he passes me in the hallway, he often stands uncomfortably close to me, with his chest within an inch of my nose.

What can I do?

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Either your boss intentionally intimidates your or he doesn’t have a clue that his behavior unnerves you.

Here are some quick fixes:

Many desk “hoverers” and phone “waiters” lack awareness that their behavior drives others nuts. Since his waiting distracts you, say, “When I’m on a call and you stand by my desk, I worry I’m keeping you waiting. As a result, I don’t always give the call my full attention. How about if I signal I see you and then wind up the call as quickly as possible and come find you?”

When he stands uncomfortably close to you in the hallway, ask, “Could you give me a bit more space, please?” If he asks why, simply say, “I can’t think when your chest is within an inch of my nose.”

Because his coming up behind you to tap you on the shoulder rattles you, explore ways you can rearrange your work station to have a wall or room divider at your back.

Finally, does your boss do this to others or only to you? If he does to others what he does to you, he needs to get a clue. If he singles you out, he may be sexually harassing you. If so, document what’s happening, and if you do get fired, visit your state’s human-rights commission.

In the meantime, stop giving your boss so much power. When he next approaches your desk, straighten your back and imagine how Katharine Hepburn would handle him. Would she cower or sit tall? Would she choose to stand up, raise her chin and look him in the eye? Would she let him get in her mind, or would she do the best job she knew how to do and thus show him how a strong woman handles intimidators? He may have a foot on you, but that’s only 12 inches. Don’t let it be more than that.

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Have a question? Email Curry at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com with the subject “SheKnows,” and she may answer you (confidentially) in an upcoming piece on SheKnows.

© 2016, Lynne Curry. Curry is the author of Solutions and Beating the Workplace Bully (AMACOM). You can follow her @lynnecurry10 on Twitter or access her other posts on SheKnows, www.workplacecoachblog.com or www.bullywhisperer.com.