A leader's insecurity results in contempt; contempt for their staff, their team, and ultimately, the needs of the organization. These contemptuous folk are haters with a title and an office. And they have the power to demand and demoralize employees.

Leadership contempt is something I've sensed in interactions from informal meetings to official company communications, and have suspected its existence among my senior leaders earlier in my career.

For starters, the opportunity to look down upon others is, for some, one of the unadvertised perks of the big boss job. Another reason is that people often get promoted to a leadership position not because of their leadership skills but because of their technical strengths (engineering solutions, managing money, building cases, etc.). In fact, this pattern seems pretty common. According to Gallup's State of the American Manager report, only 18 percent of managers have a "high degree" of talent when it comes to managing staff.

When technical strengths alone are the basis for advancement, promoted leaders start their new job with expanded responsibilities from a fairly insecure position. They're good (probably really good) at executing technical work so once they're put into management positions they're really ill-equipped. Under stress, we resort to what we know--the technical skills--so newly promoted leaders who aren't feeling particularly confident will fall back on their strengths.

How can you tell? In short, they micromanage. What else? These are seven sure signs that your boss is insecure in their position.

Your boss...

  1. Issues project directives without asking questions of the technical experts.
  2. Sets deadlines without pulsing the team on what is most reasonable given the workload. They say things like, "In the old days, we would have worked 70 hours a week to get this done but today with all this 'work-life' balance stuff, no one is willing to work hard."
  3. Checks the box and dutifully reads the company talking points in a staff meeting while making it obvious with eye-rolls or sarcasm that they're not onboard.
  4. Blames the team for outcomes without taking any personal responsibility.
  5. Misses big opportunities to say "thank you" for a job well done.
  6. Holds any one-on-one performance meetings while they're angry.
  7. Is unable to articulate what they're looking for at the end of the project and say things like "I'll know it when I see it."

And, of course, that's not all. In his recent article, Bill Murphy shared 10 more bad boss behaviors. Where does the contempt come from? Leadership contempt comes from their built-up frustration of failing to motivate their employees. In their minds, nurturing employees and clients to get the very best for the business should be the easy part. After all, these are typically technical folks that believe the most difficult work lies within the technical challenges to be solved. When staff fail to read their minds or accurately guess what they're looking for, they get mad.

What do you do if you have an insecure boss?

If you're working for a contemptuous leader now, you have to know that it's not your fault but it is your problem. Guarding against the "Stockholm Syndrome" is important to preserving your morale and sense of self in the long-term. The contemptuous manager is insecure and is not in perfect control of their situation. Unfortunately, too often the more employees that don't speak out or professionally confront the behaviors create the perfect storm of dysfunctional organization.

As an employee, you can absolutely refuse to let a contemptuous manager demoralize you. Another way to neutralize contemptuous leaders is, paradoxically, to ask them for help. Asking for something they're good at creates an opportunity to show courtesy and respect while expecting accountability from your leadership.

What do you do if you are an insecure boss?

Building self-awareness is key. You get this through annual 360 degree evaluations. It's also important to have people on the team you can count on to give you a fair and honest assessment in real time of how your decisions and directives are playing out among the team. These are data points to consider and you hone your style and approach. Of course, there is always training and coaching that can help build leadership skills, but the first piece is an attitudinal shift that only you can do. As you ascend and excel, it's important to maintain your humility. And given the pressures to perform, this can be really difficult.

All of us have important choices to make as we progress up the chain. You can celebrate it and embrace the new challenges, or you can be insecure. The real sadness is that contemptuous leaders don't believe they have the capacity to help people. Once you develop contempt for your employees, it's really hard to do anything amazing with your business.

For some cringe-worthy bad boss stories, click here and consider submitting one of your own.