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When Being Yourself Causes Others To Feel Intimidated

Photo by Edu Lauton

That picture below, it’s my kindergarten class. I’m third from the right.

Not much has changed since kindergarten…

…I’m a tiny bit taller. On a good day I’d say I’m 5’ 2”.

I’ve always been small.

It has its advantages: curling up into a ball to sleep on plane, weaving through massive crowds, and intimidating people.

No, I wasn’t kidding about the last point.

People are intimidated by me, despite my petite figure.

Turns out I’m not the only one.

Vic, one of my readers, has the EXACT same problem.

Here’s what Vic wrote to me:

Hey Poornima,

When I don’t know how to do something I’m willing to admit it and ask for help.

However, I’m pretty confident in my abilities as a designer, especially when it comes to coding up designs in HTML and CSS. So when I say I can do something, I do genuinely mean it, and I deliver on what I’ve promised.

I just moved to a new team, and my new boss conveyed feedback to me in my third one-on-one that I come off as intimidating to others.

I asked for specifics to help me understand, and my boss couldn’t really provide me an example.

My suspicion is that it’s because I’m direct.

I do my best to be kind and calm, but I wanted to give my boss and new team, the benefit of the doubt, so I asked them to bring it up the next time I do it.

Does that seem like a good idea?



Vic could be as intimidating as they come, but before we dive into what Vic could do better, let’s dissect what Vic’s boss isn’t doing well: practicing radical candor.

What is radical candor?

It’s when we provide feedback that is humble, helpful, immediate, in person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalize.

If you’ve been a reader for awhile, then you’ll recall I did an episode with Kim Scott last year called: Why Bosses & Employees Should Practice Radical Candor. It was a preview of her upcoming book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, which will be out next month!

Vic’s boss’ feedback might have been in person, but it certainly wasn’t immediate or helpful. It didn’t provide any specifics. Instead, it was vague and ambiguous, leaving Vic wondering what to do next.

What intimidation is and isn’t

Workplace bullying is a real thing and an offense that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

It’s when someone is being harassed, physically or emotionally.

In this post, I highlight examples and steps employers can take.

I don’t know Vic too well. However, I’m going to give Vic the benefit of the doubt and assume that what is happening here isn’t that Vic is actually intimidating co-workers.

My hunch is that Vic being confident and direct is causing people to feel uncomfortable because they haven’t seen someone in their workplace act that way before. Maybe even someone that looks and sounds like Vic.

Vic is going against the culture and norms people are used to.

Vic has a few options.

The first option is to start a dialogue, like Vic has already done, to understand the behavior being called into question. It gives people the benefit of the doubt, and Vic a chance to learn.

If it turns out that Vic’s behavior is considered intimidating, then Vic can change it to fit the culture and then norms of the organization.

Or Vic can rock the boat by questioning the culture and the norms of the organization.

It might lead to changing people’s mindset and approach or might lead to Vic having to look for a new job.

We hope for the former, but too often the latter happens.

Does it mean we’ve done something wrong?


It just means in being headstrong, we’ve thrown people off.

While it’s important to be kind, compassionate, and caring, there is a balance between that and being a pushover.

It takes time and practice to know when to be flexible and when to be strong.

It’s a risk we may have to take in order to find people that will value us and our abilities.

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves is it a risk worth taking?

Let me know your answer in the comments below.

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