“So, how is that design coming?”
I jump up and minimize all my windows, awkwardly twisting my neck. Standing there is my boss, eagerly waiting for a response. I humbly mumble, “good, good, good, uuhm, almost done”
Not what I wanted to say.
Even though I was actually working pretty hard at the moment, on the exact design he mentions, I panic! Like I got caught checking out “hot singles in my neighborhood”. I get flushed and clammy, as my back starts dripping perspiration.
Why is he still watching?
My boss is actually really laid back. So how can he still make me so anxious? I just freak out when he checks up on me.
Far from being done with the design, I say it is almost finished. Almost finished? It’s not finished at all! That will be some frantic work tonight.
Sound familiar? Do you to have these skittish reactions as well? Or just feel uncomfortable around your boss, even though you know there is no reason?
Why do we stress so much when our superiors are watching? Even when we do our work properly?
Let’s take a look at this behavior, the reasons why we get nervous, and how to counter them.
You can be more relaxed at work. You can slowly, but surely, implement a different way of interacting with the big cheese – becoming more at ease and confident at work.
Why all this anxiety?
There are several reasons you feel anxious around your boss. These are commonly instinctive stress reactions in the workplace, that make you feel uncomfortable.
First, there is the obvious ”he-can-fire-my-ass-on-a-whim” argument. Which is true in a large part of the US, but certainly not in most other countries. But, people who are protected from instant sacking still experience this anxiety in the workplace.
A more important factor is that your boss is higher in the hierarchy. As a bunch of monkeys in an office, this can put everyone on edge. You are always on alert for what the silverback is going to do. For our ancestors, being accepted by the boss, and thus the group, was a matter of life and death.
That’s why you are evolutionarily programmed to pay attention to the higher status people. Making sure you are still part of the group and doing your “job” for the social cohesion of the “tribe” matters.
Bosses also know more of what is going on, creating an uncertainty threat. Being in the dark about your situation is highly stressful. Your relative lack of knowledge puts you at a disadvantage. Even if it’s only a perceived lack.
Added to that is a control threat. Your superior can diminish your autonomy and assert their control over a situation. Or worse, burden you with extra work. Whether or not you can handle it. A threat to your relative autonomy is stressful. You don’t want to start working on TPS reports!
But have you considered that your boss might be stressed as well? They frequently get stressed because of their position. Explicitly or implicitly, this stress can be transferred onto you, either by taking things out on you, or giving off that a chilling anxious vibe.
As you can see, we have a good set of anxiety ingredients.
Combine all these into a nice smoothie, with a pinch of imposter syndrome, and voila! The perfect cocktail for a high stress situation. The kind where your boss’s presence gets you jumping from your seat.
You may be thinking “Why the heck would I need a boss anyway?” If you feel you would do your work better without out a boss, and you are up for it, by all means, go work for yourself!
But what if you like (or need) your current position? There is the unfortunate premise that most businesses work when there is at least some kind of hierarchy. If you are going to work for someone else, you are going to have to accept this.
Though a chain of command is important, your boss should never abuse their authority. Especially for petty issues. Next to stressing you out, it makes you lose your trust in the hierarchy. A breeding ground for unruly and unhappy employees.
Alright, so the boss freaks you out. Thanks! Now what?
Adopting a different view
Time to put things into perspective. With it, you can constructively handle the boss-employee predicament. Meaning not freaking out so fast!
Part of the solution is what you choose to highlight in this nuanced relationship. What is shaping your experience?
A hierarchy at work is not a hierarchy in life.
Define your relationship as a strictly professional one. Management is in charge to get stuff done at work only. There is no status difference outside the office. Beyond the premises and beyond professional tasks, you are your own man. Define your boundaries as such.
Knowing this can alleviate some of the status anxiety experienced. It may be hard sometimes to compartmentalize feelings concerning hierarchy, professional obligations, and your personal life. Still, keep reminding yourself that it is strictly business – and the hierarchy has no place outside of the office.
You prosper, the boss prospers.
You are there so your boss does his job well. Take strength from that fact. The chief actually needs you! Whether he openly acknowledges it or not, he is professionally invested in what you do, and making sure you prosper.
Maybe you feel you are not adequate enough in your position. Feeling like the wrong person at the wrong function. Kind of feels scary right?
But, unless you cheated your way into the job, remember that you were hired because the boss, and many others, recognized and acknowledged your competencies. Even more important – they saw your potential!
That's the reason you got that spot in the first place. Though you might feel like an imposter now, start acknowledging you have the potential to grow. To grow into what the company and, more importantly you, need to be.
It’s not you, it’s me.
When your boss is stressed, it is often not about you. It is usually about their superiors – or even the client. Their boss is probably breathing down their neck for who knows what.
Maybe they are stressing just because they are in charge.
Knowing this, you can at least try to be understanding about their situation. Don’t hold a grudge. Instead, know that they too are being pressured.
Facing the source of your nervousness
So you’ve put the situation in a better perspective. How can you approach your relationship in a more productive manner?
Always stay polite and professional.
Let’s start with a small acknowledgement. Being out of line will only hit you back harder. Keep this relationship professional.
When you act rude or childish in the face of adversity, your boss will see that as a liability. Maybe that cool challenging assignment will go to someone else, limiting your chance to shine.
That said – there are sometimes issues where you feel you're being pressured too hard. Or the way you are being managed makes you feel bad. Or maybe your boss is just acting like an ass.
Discuss this with him.
Arrange a meeting or go to their office. Discuss your concerns. Don’t create an all out offensive by harshly confronting – but talk about what is troubling you. Together look for a more harmonious collaboration.
It’s dangerous to go alone. Prepare!
But I get it, this is hard if your boss makes you uncomfortable. If you feel too anxious to stand up and speak your mind, rehearse what you want to tell your boss.
Or arrange for someone from HR to be at the meeting as well. Write down your concerns and explain your points logically. Create a well thought out discourse on why a better work situation is better for you and the company.
Remember though, no matter how nervous your boss makes you, there is a no need to whine about how he makes you cower. Again, discuss things professionally.
Especially when you discuss his modus operandi. Remember he is human too – if you feel that he is venting his pressure onto you, ask why there is so much stress. That might open him up, so you can both better understand and relate.
Know that at work, you can speak up.
Maybe your boss doesn’t always want to hear all the issues you raise. But hey, that is his job. He is responsible for creating a healthy working environment.
Be proactive in communicating your concerns. Don’t wait till it’s too late. But remember, there might be things he thinks you can change in your attitude as well.
Don’t forget to also talk about what is going well! Create a more positive spin on your career. Associate yourself with successes.
Redefine your relationship
When figuring out a better way to define your relationship with the boss, why not try seeing him as a mentor. Try to learn from him.
He has a position higher up than you. Why? What can you learn from his experience?
Does he have certain technical smarts? Managerial smarts? People smarts? Ask for advice and guidance where you think you'll learn the most. Shape a more constructive relationship.
Go the extra mile – become irreplaceable.
But if you want a near 100% guarantee that you are in a good place with the boss, do awesome work. Show your unique spin and quality of work.
Proactively communicate and collaborate with colleagues. Act in the best interest of the company. Truly become the linchpin of your workplace.
That way, if there is any stress, it’s your boss’s, hoping he can keep you around.
Growing stronger at work
Maybe you can use some more general confidence in the workplace as well.
You could start by taking some pride and confidence in the knowledge and experience you already have. The skills and know-how that landed and helped you keep your job. As I said – the potential that others see in you!
Be brutally honest though. Ask yourself and your colleagues where you lack skill or experience. It’s okay to look dumb sometimes, ask ‘dumb’ questions and learn. Maybe they will have suggestions for how to close those gaps.
Use the experience of your colleagues. Don’t hesitate asking because of your ego. Asking and learning will get you much further in the long run. Being able to be honest about your shortcomings is a sign of great strength.
Ask your boss if he can supply you with proper training if needed.
Don’t forget to always show honesty and integrity. Don’t play politics and refrain from gossipping – especially don’t bad mouth your boss behind his back. A workplace where you don't need to worry that your deceit will come back to haunt you is very relaxing.
Wrapped up in a blanket of confidence
There are many instincts and reasons why you might feel anxious around your boss. But many more that show why you don’t have to.
Take time to reflect and see that the fear fueling your anxiety is a very relative one.
Start looking at your boss as a fellow human. If you can develop an open and proactive relationship with him, he can be your greatest ally! Start creating a beneficial relationship, and you will no longer perceive him as your worst threat.
Furthermore, grown to be a well-esteemed employee and colleague. You will see it gets you a long way in your career. It’s more relaxing, rewarding, and productive.
Still feel you could use some more confidence and social skills to feel better at work? Feel free to find out what there is more to learn!