6 Signs Your Boss Is Threatened by You

(And What to Do about It)

5 minute read

In our last post on mentoring, we talked about the idea of a “leadership gap,” which is often perceived as something negative, but is simply an opportunity for one person (usually a manager) to commit to and invest in helping someone else (their mentee/protégée/supervisee) progress. At its core, this is what the mentoring relationship is founded on. In our discussion, we emphasized that the ideal mentoring relationship is between a manager and their supervisee.

But what if there is no mentoring relationship between manager and managed?

As we discussed last time, if those conditions are not present, the supervisee will eventually either become disengaged and unfulfilled at work, leading to a severe reduction in productivity, or they will seek out someone else who can help them, most often resulting in them leaving the organization.

One of the most common reasons for the absence of a mentoring relationship is unfortunately insecurity on the part of the supervisor. Sometimes the insecurity is present because the manager is unconfident in their own job or role. Sometimes they “inherited” members of their team instead of being able to select and hire their own staff, and are thus not invested in them. Sometimes, a team member is extremely competent—even more so than their boss—and the boss feels threatened by that. While these are all short-sighted reasons on the part of the manager to reject a mentoring relationship, these situations are almost always untenable for the supervisee, because not only is the manager not committed to helping, they may even be motivated to consciously (or unconsciously) take action to undermine their underling’s success.

How do you know if you’re in this situation? Here are some handy identifiers:

Signs Your Boss Is Threatened by You

  1. Your boss doesn’t demonstrate a caring attitude. She doesn’t take the time to talk with you about where you want to go, what motivates you, or who you want to be.
  2. Your boss doesn’t check in with you regularly to ensure you have the resources you need to do your job and to help you get answers when she herself doesn’t know them. This is a clear sign of a lack of management skills and an abdication of management responsibility.
  3. Her answer to how to approach an obstacle or problem is consistently “you’re just gonna have to figure it out.” While we believe that it’s a good practice to only go to your boss with a problem when you can offer a possible solution, if the boss is repeatedly unhelpful or difficult to access, it demonstrates inadequate leadership training. Managers like these don’t understand the importance of running interference, helping, and caring for those they would lead.
  4. Your boss doesn’t want you in meetings with her boss. She doesn’t want you talking to her boss. She believes strongly in the chain of command. We always advise clients to never do anything that will come as a surprise or embarrassment to their boss. For instance, if you are set to go to lunch with your boss’s boss, let your boss know. But if you tell her and she doesn’t want you to go, that’s a big red flag!
  5. Your boss keeps you in the dark. Effective managers will share as much as they can—everything that is not expressly deemed confidential—to empower their team and help them avoid feeling like they are operating “in the dark.”
  6. You observe your boss take credit for something you or the entire team has done, and furthermore fail to take the opportunity to recognize your efforts or those of the team. This “competence inversion” is a classic sign that your boss is threatened by you or your teammates.

To be clear, people who engage in these types of unsupportive or outright sabotaging behaviors are not leaders. They are managers at best, and even that title might be generous. Effective leaders aren’t afraid to hire people who are smarter than they are, and to help them do well. And a true leader understands that she must care for the people she would lead—sometimes even more than they care for her. So when you can sense your boss isn’t committed to you, or worse, is willing to sabotage you, we strongly suggest leaving. Nothing good can come of staying.

For the manager’s part, hiring people who are smarter than you and allowing them the autonomy to do their job well helps ensure your own success as well as the company’s, because this openness is what cultivates new and better ways to succeed. An effective leader who knows how to recruit, train, and keep impressive talent is never threatened, because they understand that they are demonstrating their own ability to build and lead a strong team.

Very rarely, perhaps 1% of the time, the boss’s boss may recognize the underling as more qualified than the manager, but even that is unlikely to be the manager’s undoing. Essential to this lesson is the understanding that it’s not the presence of smarter or more talented underlings that is problematic; it’s that the manager feels threatened by their presence. There is nothing wrong with having smarter people on their team, especially technically, and unless the boss is threatened by that, there rarely is anything to worry about. It’s insecurity and the willingness to act on it (by commission or omission) that is far more damaging to the manager.

The manager that has a sharp underling will continue to be successful, even if the underling is spun out and given their own team to lead. Very rarely does that underling actually take away their manager’s job. The astute leader recognizes that a former protégée who advances can be a partner and an ally later, and that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Key to this kind of leadership intelligence is flexibility and adaptability, the lowest-scoring executive competency in North America out of 4.5 million people assessed. More on that bombshell next time…