Confront Boss-Phobia With These Strategies

Published: Mar 10, 2009

 Workplace Issues       

"I have this phobia in dealing with higher-ups," concedes an investmentbanker. In November, while running through a client presentation in frontof his boss, he realized midway through that he had flubbed some minorfigures. In the end, "I bumbled so badly that it sounded 10 times worse,"he says. "And because I started saying stupid things, he just wentballistic."

The banker says he doesn't have any trouble keeping his cool in front ofpeers, subordinates or senior management at other firms. But around anycurrent or even former boss, his mind goes blank and his heart races. He'sconvinced his most recent boss's dissatisfaction is one reason he lost hisjob last month. "I can't blame him," he says. "He doesn't know what Iknow."

Bossphobia is rarely discussed, but irrational fears of the supervisorare widespread, and often prove debilitating for employees and costly forcompanies. The phobia is caused by people's distorting the intentions oftheir manager or bringing some bad prior experience to the relationship.Even a single humiliating moment in the past, completely unrelated to areal-life boss, can feed a worker's fears.

In the workplace, though, employees often fail to confront the problemand its perceived focus -- the supervisor. Sufferers simply put their headsdown when the boss passes, skip meetings and never raise their hands forassignments. Late-night anxiety and daytime panics become associated with amanager, making him loom ever larger than life.

Bossphobia especially blossoms in tough job markets like the currentone. "During times like we have now, when people are frightened for theirjobs, there's an acceleration of this fear," says Herb Rappaport, aprofessor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, who also runsLeadership Advisory Associates, an executive-consulting firm.

The challenge, he says, is for sufferers to figure out whether theanxiety comes from within or from higher up. "There are bosses who aresimply frightening people," Dr. Rappaport says. "The place to begin is byasking, 'Am I really projecting onto this person or are they really atyrant?' "

John Weaver, a psychologist and coach with Psychology for Business, aconsulting firm in Waukesha, Wis., estimates that perhaps a slim 2% or lessof the population suffers from an extreme form of bossphobia, but estimatesthat 10% to 15% of people have moderate fears that hold them back fromfully pursuing their careers. Dr. Weaver counsels them to expose themselvesgradually to situations that provoke anxiety. "They have to put themselvesin situations where they do have to perform in front of the boss," he says."You can't get past an anxiety without confronting it."

For severe cases, experts recommend consulting a psychotherapist whoalso has familiarity with the workplace. For milder cases, they suggestfinding a coach with a psychology background.

Dick Schubert, a Washington, D.C., coach with Executive Coaching NetworkInc., has the following general advice for people panicked about making apresentation in front of a supervisor:

  • Take the time to practice. Go through thepresentation with a stopwatch and an audience, even if that just means yourspouse. Figure out if your talk is appropriately long and detailedenough.

  • Anticipate the "S.O.B.-type" questions. What are the toughest,meanest, most-spiteful questions they're likely to ask? Be ready with ananswer.

  • Try to figure out what your boss is expecting to hear. If youdon't know, ask. Mr. Schubert suggests asking openly, "I'm going to give apresentation. I want to know how you want me to frame it. Do you want ashort summary in advance? How should it be laid out?"

You can approach your manager about a general case of bossphobia, butyou need to assess how open you can be. It would be naive to think that allsupervisors would respond positively to such openness, career coaches andpsychologists say. Most workplaces contain a continuum of managementpersonalities, with a dominating fear-based style at one end and amore-open and compassionate style at the other.

"I'd like to think that in the modern era the more-enlightened bosswants to help people get comfortable and more productive," Dr. Rappaportsays.