I recently came across a survey blurb that stated that a certain percentage of management feared being out of the office because they were afraid that a subordinate would outshine them in their absence. While I don’t remember the exact percentage of those respondents, I know it wasn’t a trivial number.

I was a bit shocked by the response because (perhaps naively) the thought never occurs to me when I’m out of the office. The fact that there are managers with this paranoid fear says several things to me about their management difficulties:

  1. They are very insecure in their position.
  2. They work in a very dog-eat-dog environment.
  3. They are afraid of their own subordinates.
  4. They probably take credit for everything.
  5. They probably never share in the blame.
  6. They have low self esteem.
  7. They don’t view their marketability as being very high, increasing their fear that they will lose their job.

Perhaps I have it all wrong, and in fact, they are all very well adjusted and particularly shrewd in the analysis of their current situation? Maybe a few, but I’m guessing the rest of the respondents have one or more of the problems described above — all of which are bad and need further elaboration.

First and foremost, no manager can be effective if they truly are afraid of being shown up by their subordinates when they are out of the office. These managers are not likely to mentor their subordinates, don’t give a flip about continuity/succession planning, are probably very risk averse, are very controlling and route every decision to themselves, and probably micromanage to an extreme — in other words — a real dream to work for, eh?

Addressing the first two points, one must wonder if the insecurity is rooted in actual behavior observed in the current environment (have they seen it done to others before in their workplace?); is this a manifestation of past experience or just plain paranoia? If this is a regular practice in your workplace and you don’t happen to be playing for an NFL team where you are fighting for roster spots all the time, then one might consider looking for a healthier environment. If the insecurity is based on other factors, some serious introspection is probably warranted.

Points three, four, and five above are mostly symptoms of their fear, manifested as poor management. Points six and seven are personal problems that need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis and perhaps some counseling; however, all the traits in the list above can be dealt with proactively in some fashion by changing some workplace behavior.

If you’re afraid of being replaced by a subordinate, you can solidify your position in proactive and healthy ways. The first way is by building better relationships. As a manager, you have readier access to individuals in the organization that your subordinates do not. Use this access to build relationships with those above you and across from you on the org chart. It is not only good for business — you will come to understand the operations of your organization better — but it also buys you the good will of the people you interact with. Relationships are taken into consideration when hiring, firing, and promotion opportunities present themselves.

Being out of the office (assuming it is for business) also means that you again have opportunities for relationship building and for networking. Good work outside will filter back to your organization.

If you are concerned because you believe you have lost your edge and your subordinates are sharper than you…well…do the obvious. Work on sharpening your skills to stay competitive. Keep in mind that the skills you are sharpening are probably not the same as those of the people reporting to you, particularly as you move up the org chart. How well you program in C# probably doesn’t amount to a hill of beans to your boss if your job is not to program but to manage. Lifelong learning helps you to avoid skill gaps that can lead to insecurity and low self esteem.

Try and remember that as a manager you work THROUGH people and they are your assets and hopefully your allies. If your workplace resembles Mutiny on the Bounty, you had better take a hard look at how you are managing. Your subordinates should not hate you nor be plotting against you. If they are, you better try to get to the root of the problem ASAP, and you should start by looking at yourself first.

Lastly, work hard, be proud of what you do, but always be ready to leave. The workplace, as is the world, is a very unpredictable place and hardly ever fair. Never get so settled in a position that you become complacent. Always plan for your next move. Put away some money in an “emergency cache” that can fund six months of unemployment. It may take you awhile to build it, but having it gives you the peace of mind that your world hasn’t completely fallen apart should you find yourself out of work. That peace of mind also works to reduce anxiety about being let go.

In summary, a manager carrying around fears of their subordinates outshining them when they are absent is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Whether you need to leave an unhealthy environment or do some serious self-evaluation and behavior changing, you do not want to operate out of fear. It is unhealthy for the organization, the people you supervise, and ultimately you, the manager.

Have your ever been paranoid about scheming subordinates or been in an unhealthily competitive environment? Have you ever observed or tried to coach other managers with these traits?