How to Deal With an Insecure Boss

No matter how hard you work to strengthen and sustain your own confidence, there will always be people who put it to the test; acting in ways (whether intentionally or not) that threaten to blow your hard-earned skills to the ground, like a flimsy house of cards. 

Upon first glance, these people might seem simply mean, controlling, or domineering. But look one level deeper and you’ll find that their behavior is actually rooted in an unsuspecting culprit: insecurity. 

In the best-case scenario, you’re able to limit your interactions with dangerously insecure people or avoid them altogether. However, side-stepping can become particularly challenging when this person is…(wait for it)…your boss. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t a rare phenomenon. According to a Gallup study, companies hire managers with inadequate managerial skills a full 82% of the time. So, the odds are that at some point in your career, you will have to work under, (or at least interact with), an insecure manager. If that does eventually happen to you, here’s how to deal…
Understand Them: What Makes Them Insecure?

Insecurity is bred from a place of fear. More specifically: the fear of failure, regret, or rejection. Insecurity attaches to the “ego”, meaning that its priority is self-preservation. Deep down, your insecure boss most likely feels inadequate or unworthy: of their success, skills, status, etc. In order to stay afloat, your boss may push you down, which is textbook bully behavior. (Think: taking credit for your work or blaming you every time something goes wrong). They may even fight obstinately against change, (even when that change promises new opportunities) because the current structure allows them the security of predictability…and they aren’t confident enough in their strength to grow through challenges. 

The science shows that when your manager has entered into this threat state of insecurity, their brain is managing stress vis-à-vis the “fight-or-flight” response, meaning that their cognitive functioning is literally impaired and their emotions are in the driver’s seat. This unfortunately makes their behavior volatile and often illogical. (i.e. they appear jealous when you receive praise, or they micromanage you when they feel nervous). It is impossible to predict all of the irrational responses your boss may have in any given situation.
Understand Yourself: How This Threatens YOUR Confidence

Your boss’s insecurity is not only costly to them, it’s costly to you and your company. Insecurity has been named as a major cause for employee disengagement across the board, as well as billions of dollars lost for your company. A 2018 TinyPulse Retention Report found that employees who don’t get along with their managers are 4 times as likely to seek a new position. Why? Because we want our managers to be supremely human. 

In a Gallup study of 10,000 participants, the most important qualities people identified wanting from their leaders were: “trust, compassion, stability, and hope.” Namely, without compassion, Gallup found that employees were almost certain to disengage from their work. PI’s 2018 management study reinforced this, finding that one of the top things employees want is confidence in and from their managers. 

But insecurity is inherently self-focused and confidence-devoid. So, how can your manager deliver on the things that make you engaged at work and build a foundation of trust and mutual respect when they don’t trust or respect themselves, and their behavior is inevitably volatile—maybe even manipulative and demeaning?
Understand How to Deal: Manage Thyself

According to the “Uncertainty Management Theory”, you crave fair treatment even more in the face of uncertainty (i.e. your boss’s unpredictable and erratic behavior). But trying to elicit that fairness from your insecure, ego-serving manager, is a dead end. You can, however, get that certainty from yourself

The very definition of confidence is certainty. So, ironically, the times when your confidence feels under siege by your insecure manager are exactly the times you need your confidence most. 

Especially when it’s coming from an authority figure, insecure behavior can send the message that you aren’t competent, trustworthy, or credible. Realize that the problem most often is not you, and resist the temptation to internalize or react to insecure accusations: They are not usually a reflection of your personal worth. On the contrary, they are more likely a reflection of their own lack of self-worth. Rather than playing into (or trying to make sense of) your boss’s insecure “mind games”, use your values as due North to help you find your center.

Realign your mindset by running your own values check. Ask yourself: “Am I proud of my work?”, “Did I do my best?”, “Was the work itself interesting?”, “Do I see the value of my work?”,  “Did I learn anything?”, “Was it worth my efforts?”

Confidence comes from being certain of—and acting in accordance with—your truth. Confirm your own truth by doing regular check-ins with yourself, and also with a *trusted* colleague, friend, mentor, or coach. 
Understand When to Move On: Is it a Current Bummer, or a Career Buster?

Being aware of your boss’s insecurity might help you navigate around their triggers and manage your own thoughts and behaviors accordingly (or at least enough to get by). However, it is ultimately exhausting to constantly tip-toe around an insecure boss, seeking ways to make you both feel confident and comfortable. At the end of the day, you’re only responsible for your own confidence. Working around their lack of self-confidence, or trying to maintain your own confidence in the face of a manager who doesn’t recognize your worth, can grossly limit your growth and potential within your organization.  

Sadly, dealing with an insecure boss is an all too common waste of time and energy that could be spent doing something more productive for yourself and your company. If you do decide to call it quits, know that you aren’t alone and you always have options. Most importantly, remember that a confidence-starved boss doesn’t define who you are, or the work you can do. Let this experience serve as the one important lesson your boss could impart to you…what NOT to do!

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