Intimidated by People with Power over You at Work?

It’s so easy for this to happen.

Whether you’re giving a presentation or having a conversation, feeling intimidated by people with power over you at work – either higher up the food chain, or with some other power over you – it can be a real challenge.

Hand knocking on a door marked 'Director'
Intimidated by People with Power over You at Work?

My experience

I vividly recall working with my first CEO client, years ago now. We’d spoken on the phone, and I turned up for our first coaching session.

I remember getting into the lift of this expansive, echoing marble foyer, heart pounding, as I tried desperately to remind myself of my successful track record…and keep breathing!

It helped, but I was still highly stressed when I walked in.

Once I met him, I realised that he too was stressed – about his presentation skills – and it was all ok from there! He was just a human being (see tip below).

Our system shrinks and collapses

When we feel that sort of status or hierarchy stress, our body (including our vocal cords) and our thoughts tighten and contract. 

We then lose access to our voice (sometimes literally). Or it comes out high and squeaky (that’s the tightened vocal cords). Which is humiliating, and a dead giveaway that we’re nervous.

So just when we need our system to stay open, we’re triggered by status or power. It’s harsh!

There are 4 things in particular that I’ve found can help to challenge, and even overtake, someone with positional power over us. Research findings from Alex Pentland of MIT on the first two in this list, back me up.

Even if these seem obvious to you, tapping into them deliberately can make a real difference.

What will help

1. Know your topic. A level of expertise and sense that you know what you’re talking about is vital – both for your own confidence and to be able to convince others successfully.

2. Channel your nervous energy into your topic – expand your energy rather than contract and try to suppress it. Energy is life-force and it’s very attractive; tapping into it will go a long way to position you in the ways that you want to be seen.

And if you can’t find energy for your topic, dig deep! You could transfer some from another part of your life, and tap into that. (This may take practice.) 

And if you can feel and show true enthusiasm for your topic, even better. Enthusiasm is a proven bridge to confidence if you don’t feel fully confident yet. 

Unless you’re off the charts with nerves, this can work for you. If you’re completely overwhelmed with fear, you might need to skip this one. I still suggest looking at the option though – you might surprise yourself with how it can work for you.

3. Remember that these people are human too. We may not see it, but they struggle with fear, and grief and loss and pressure, just like we do.

And the ones who are most arrogant and difficult to deal with are often the ones who are struggling the most.

4. Keep your posture and body language tall and open. Our natural instinct is to collapse in on ourselves and to lose some height and grounding. It’s really important to hold the space.

I’d love your thoughts. Is this something that you recognise? How do you deal with it?

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'9 Boxes' Planning & Structure Template for an Impactful Presentation

Includes: Content 'type' suggestions / Walkthrough of my own example / Empty grid for your own use ______________________________________________ “Sarah has developed some very practical tools to help people learn and develop presentation skills. As someone who appreciates structure, having a template structure to work from and adapt is very helpful indeed.” - Chad Irons, GM, ACC International Relief

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