Are Managers Intimidated by Smart Employees?

Managers shouldn’t be intimidated by smart employees, really. But that doesn’t mean that most don’t.


Maybe you got your dream job, only to find that your new manager feels threatened by you and is giving you the silent treatment.

Or maybe your department merged with another as part of a restructuring, and you now have to deal with a manager who is very different from the one you had before (and not in a good way!).

Whatever the case, the point is that your manager is clearly intimidated by you right now, and you’re wondering what you can do to change that, or at least not get fired. We’ve all been there, and it’s one of those situations in life for which there’s no app or guidebook.

Should a Manager Be Smarter Than Their Employees?

Just like a sports coach isn’t supposed to be in better shape and more athletic than their players, it isn’t the manager’s job to be any smarter or more capable than their direct reports.

The two main responsibilities of a manager are (1) to deliver results for the company and (2) to hire, develop, and retain his or her direct reports.

Contrary to what is asserted in popular management literature, this is how high-performing managers think of their role and excel in it—best described by management consultant Mark Horstman in his 2016 book, The Effective Manager.

Delivering results and hiring, developing, and retaining employees require different skills from a manager than from an individual contributor who does good work for which they were hired.

The mindset, skillset, and knowledge required to achieve success in each of these two roles are very different and in no way interchangeable. This is why a smart worker can turn out to be a really bad manager, and a great manager can turn out to be a really bad worker.

Of course, it helps if the manager knows the industry and the field and has worked in one or more of the roles they now lead on the team. First-hand experience will give the manager a better understanding of the challenges their directs face and how to help them overcome them.

Regardless, a good manager knows that they’re not supposed to be the smartest person in the room. They need to be the person who can work with smart people and make good decisions, and lead a team to superior performance and high engagement.

The problem is that not all managers are good managers.

Do Managers Get Intimidated by Smart Employees?

Now, here’s the thing:

The fact that managers shouldn’t be intimidated by smart employees doesn’t mean that they don’t get intimidated by smart employees.

Managers are not promoted, trained, and skilled equally.

First-time managers, for example, lack self-confidence, and it is not uncommon for experienced managers to not have a high level of self-awareness. So, for one reason or another, they may be intimidated by employees who they see as “smarter” or “better” than they are.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do if you’re the one on the other end of the line.

New leaders need to go through their learning curve, and if the organization has promoted a certain person to a managerial role, they are more than likely to let them have it.

On the other side of the spectrum are experienced managers who lack self-awareness. Generally, such managers are not likely to be open and receptive to negative feedback without reciprocating in some form.

Consider your career plans and possible maneuvers carefully—from changing teams to switching out departments to finding a job elsewhere.

As you weigh your options, though, don’t forget that managers are people, too. And sometimes, the problem runs emotionally deeper than lack of self-confidence.

I once coached a manager who had excellent self-confidence but nevertheless had major communication problems with two of his direct reports. He had been bullied badly in high school, and his two directs reminded him of the two bullies who had traumatized him in his childhood.

The manager I coached was well aware of his bias, and he didn’t let it affect his performance evaluation of his two direct reports. But it seeped into their day-to-day communication, and something in their one-on-ones felt off to the extent that it had triggered office rumors.

It took this manager a lot of self-work to keep his triggers out of his interactions with his employees, and a series of deliberate responses to situations that dispelled the rumor that he was intimidated by his employees’ intelligence, but he finally succeeded.

If your manager gets triggered by you in meetings or one-on-ones, be aware that it may not be because you are smarter than they are, but that there may be other reasons that cause them to get triggered in some way.

(Although it must be said that doing this won’t change the situation or make it any more “fair” to you.)

The trigger for your boss’s behavior may even come from outside and have nothing to do with you, such as a monthly steering committee or a one-on-one meeting with his or her manager; look for clues that will tell you how to adjust your communication accordingly.

Don’t Let Your Smartness Take the Best of You

Being smart (however you define it) isn’t the only quality that leads to success on the job. An employee can be incredibly smart at what they do and still make poor decisions or perform poorly.

For example, they might be too smart for their own good and have blind spots in the areas of their role or work in which they are less knowledgeable.

Humility and humbleness are two qualities that can help you greatly in the workplace. Rid yourself of self-centeredness and arrogance, and you can approach every interaction in the workplace with your best self, with an open mind and a cooperative mindset.

Doing so allows you to build stronger and more genuine working relationships with your stakeholders, managers, peers, and direct reports that pay dividends over time. It also takes the pressure off you to always have the right answer or always do the right thing—two tasks you are sure to fail at.

Categorized as Work

By Dim Nikolov

Jack of all trades and master of none. Dim is a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) and Certified Scrum Master (CSM). He has a decade of experience as a stakeholder, member, leader, and coach for agile teams.