Fear of Authority Figures in the Workplace Isn’t Just Social Anxiety4 min read
People who seek help with their social anxiety often have difficulties dealing with individuals who have “power,” perceived power or authority. These can be authority figures, those with high status, or those in parental roles. However, you do not have to have social anxiety – fear of being negatively evaluated, embarrassed or humiliated, found inadequate, and rejected – in order to become anxious in the presence of someone with authority.
In general, we have been taught to respect all authority. As a consequence, we also have a deeply buried sense of guilt about possibly being caught doing something authorities dictate we should not be doing. Consider how you feel when you are driving and a police car appears. For most of us there is an immediate and automatic surge of adrenaline that not only races your heart but also lifts your foot from the accelerator.
Like social anxiety, fear of authority figures can be the result of factors such as
– Strict, critical or overbearing parents who made you feel inadequate and powerless to do other than as they directed.
– Traumatic incident involving a person in authority whom you felt embarrassed, humiliated, rejected, or punished you in some way.
– Conditioned response to feeling negatively evaluated, judged, and rendered powerless over time by an authority figure.
As a result, you tend to see authority figures as having more value and being more deserving of power than you because you are less worthy by comparison. You see this as the reason they have that role, the power, and the discretion to use that power as they see fit… and you do not.
These factors can leave you perceiving any person in an authoritative role as having the right to judge you and the special power to arbitrarily threaten or act against you. You are left with the feeling that a person in this role cannot be trusted to have your best interests at heart. Therefore, you feel you must appease them and seek their approval so they will not use their power against you. Where this fear shows itself most often is in the workplace.
While it is understandable that no one wants to feel at risk of losing their job, when you fear your boss or anyone in that role of authority, you cannot do your best. Your performance suffers because your thoughts and emotions are focused on how you are being evaluated and how you can survive it. Your thoughts are not focused on your being as productive as you need to be. Instead, you constantly analyze everything that happens on the job and worry about what it means. You begin to feel hypersensitive to what your boss says and does with respect to your value and position at work.
If given the choice of interpreting what you see and hear as positive or negative, you will tend to spin it negatively. This is because you have to keep yourself vigilant of potential dangers in order to protect yourself. The result is that you hold yourself in lower esteem than your boss. You see yourself as needing to do whatever is necessary to be a “good little cog in the wheel” but, at the same time, stay off the boss’s radar. Of course, the problem with acting in this fashion is that you are sabotaging yourself. You are acting in total contradiction to what you need to do to be seen as an important, productive, necessary member of the team that the boss would not want to lose.
What can you do to address this difficult problem? You need to follow a program that addresses all the components of your fear – cognitive, emotional, and physiological. You need to
1. Assess your positive attributes (talents, abilities, experience, work successes, and expertise) and your value as both a worker and a human being
2. Assess your boss’s positive attributes and value as both a worker and a human being
3. See that comparing yourself to your boss is like comparing apples and oranges – that you two have different roles requiring different attributes and behaviors – that one is not “better” than the other – only different
4. See that your boss has authority and power by virtue of his/her role only
5. Examine your past successes in general and your work successes in particular to see your work’s value and to regain your confidence that you have something worthwhile to contribute
6. Dispute automatic negative thoughts about your perceived inadequacy and your boss’s arbitrary use of power against you
7. Stop yourself when you start analyzing fear-related situations
8. Stop yourself when you start feeling hypersensitive to what your boss says and does
9. Learn to deeply relax yourself in anxiety-provoking situations so you can think more clearly and rationally
10. Displace negative emotions with humor to keep you more positive and on an even keel
11. Visualize your boss as a mere human being and peer in fun or silly social situations
12. Visualize yourself calmly meeting with your boss, asking a question, making a comment, or sharing information
13. Look for colleagues who act confidently with your boss and model yourself after their behavior
14. Recognize that only you have the right to judge and validate your worth as a person
15. Assess your own decision-making power as a human being and competent worker
16. Decide what you want to achieve on the job for yourself and make a plan you will follow to achieve it.