Are you struggling to know how to respond to coworkers when they seem to feel insecure around you?
When coworkers are insecure of you, it can be hard to work well together and challenging to know how to respond yourself.
Below, I’ll show you the potential causes for your coworkers’ insecurity, plus strategies for what you can do to improve the situation.
Causes for your coworkers’ insecurity
When coworkers are insecure about you, work is more difficult.
Both you and they will face challenges to productivity and even just healthy dialogue. It’s a problem that needs to be resolved, and this starts with understanding the causes of your coworkers’ insecurity.
There are countless factors that can create a feeling of insecurity. Most of the time, though, insecurity grows out of one of these roots.
1) Income insecurity
If you’re in an environment where incomes are known and you’re making more than your coworkers, this can be a source of insecurity — not to mention resentment.
Your coworkers know that you’re being paid more and they begin to feel like you’re more important or more popular with the boss. This can create serious feelings of insecurity.
2) Body insecurity
If you’re fit, young, attractive, or some combination of the three, chances are, not everyone in your workplace looks the same.
Insecurity from coworkers could at times be rooted in body insecurity, where there’s something about their own bodies they don’t like or an area where you’re “better” than they are.
Unfortunately, this can be a challenging area to deal with.
You can’t change who you are and you can effect change on your coworkers only in the rarest of circumstances. While there are plenty of strategies your coworkers themselves could take, chances are, you aren’t going to be in a place to share that information with them.
3) Social anxiety
You may be a social butterfly, comfortable in just about any social situation. But there are plenty of people who just don’t operate this way.
So what you’re perceiving as insecurity maybe something else entirely, like social anxiety. Of course, social anxiety can itself lead to insecurity.
4) Lack of perceived friendliness
One of the biggest causes of insecurity at work is a lack of perceived friendliness. Now, you may be thinking, “What do you mean? I’m friendly enough!”
But notice I said perceived friendliness, not just friendliness. On this point, it’s about what your coworkers feel, far more than it’s about what you feel.
If your coworkers aren’t perceiving that you are a friendly, safe person, they may display signs of insecurity around you.
5) Age differential
Coworkers who are quite a bit older or younger than you may not feel as comfortable around you as they do around people closer to their ages. This is a natural result of working on teams made up of people from multiple generations.
If you’re on the upper end of the working-age population, it takes extra effort to remain relatable to your younger coworkers.
On the flip side, if you’re a younger professional (especially one managing or supervising older employees), you’ll face a different set of struggles and insecurities. Here are a few tips for making it work.
6) Skill or knowledge differential
Another huge source of workplace insecurity is when you know more than your coworker or are simply better at a particular task than they are. And again here there’s only so much you can do if it’s a peer relationship.
You certainly don’t want to underperform just to accommodate your coworker’s insecurity.
That said, just being aware that your coworker may be feeling insecure can be a great first step. Offer to share your knowledge or some tips to improve your coworker’s skills. Don’t say or do things that highlight deficiencies or belittle your coworker.
What insecurity can look like
Just like workplace insecurity can have many causes, it can also have many manifestations.
In other words, not every coworker will display insecurity in the same ways. Below are several characteristics — both negative and neutral — that may point to insecurities in a coworker.
1) Hostile attitude
A hostile attitude can be a sign of insecurity, especially when it seems out of character for the person.
Now, some people are just jerks. They’re hostile to everyone, all the time.
But if Susan is otherwise a happy, well-adjusted sales rep who only gets hostile when you come around, you might be running into a coping mechanism stemming from insecurity.
2) Nervous talking
If an employee seems to talk more rapidly and more nervously when you enter the conversation, you may be dealing with a coworker who’s insecure about you.
That insecurity is affecting the way they speak in this moment and is a sign to all who are listening that something is not quite right.
3) Clamming up
On the other side of that coin, some people show their insecurity or discomfort by clamming up and shutting up.
If Ramon always seems to withdraw from a conversation or meeting when you show up, it might not be anything personal. He may just be dealing with insecurity.
4) Overachiever mode
This display of insecurity is the classic fight-or-flight scenario.
Instead of running away or clamming up, Natasha turns into the most productive employee of the century when you’re around. She’s pushing so hard, though, that she might start making mistakes.
This response doesn’t come from a good motivation but from a place of fear and insecurity.
5) Rule-keeping robot
Another approach to insecurity is to precisely follow the rules and procedures, even to a frustrating degree. This kind of employee is afraid of being called out or reprimanded, but this hyper-focus on rule-keeping doesn’t serve anyone.
Whatever your coworkers’ insecurities look like, the real question is how to move past or avoid those insecurities so you can get the work done. That’s what I’ll cover from here on out.
How to make others feel more at ease around you
It’s incredibly difficult to change other people, especially as a peer. So as I start in on solutions, I’m going to start with you.
You may not be the problem here, but often you can be a part of the solution. Because the causes of workplace insecurity are so broad, the solutions are as well. Not every one of these solutions will work in every situation.
Treat this more like a buffet of choices than a step-by-step guide. If your chosen approach doesn’t work, circle back and try a different one next time.
1) Be a friend, not just friendly
Conventional wisdom says you need to go out of your way to be friendly toward an insecure coworker. But I say that’s not quite enough.
You need to actually be a friend to that person. Ask them questions about themselves, their work, how they feel. Show genuine interest, and keep a pleasant expression on your face as you do.
If your coworker has gotten the incorrect impression that you aren’t friendly, your efforts to prove otherwise could bring the coworker around. Not sure exactly how to do this naturally? This guide can help.
2) Invite them into the conversation
Insecure coworkers may be present in a meeting or conversation without truly being present. They may have quite a bit to share but feel like they aren’t welcome to do so. Go out of your way to invite a coworker into your conversation.
Say, “Natasha, what do you think about this?” or “Ramon, didn’t your last project team encounter a similar problem?”
Don’t expect an insecure or shy employee to take this initiative, at least not at first. But once you begin inviting them into the conversation, you might be surprised at the depth of insights you receive.
3) Understand that we aren’t all the same
I recently saw a comic about Type A and Type B people.
Type B was encouraging his Type-A friend to stop and smell the flowers. Type A then proceeded to aggressively turn flower-smelling into an Olympic sport, which he, of course, won. He destroyed all the flowers in the process, and Type B just stands to the side, mouth agape.
The comic was hilarious, but it illustrates just how differently various people see the world.
If you’re an extrovert dealing with insecure introverts, your friendly advances may translate as overwhelming or even scary. (Conversely, if you’re an introvert, your subtle cues of friendliness may seem downright cold to your extroverted coworkers.)
4) Give them space and time
If you think you’re dealing with coworkers who are more introverted than you are, try giving them both space and time — more than you think they need.
For example, try setting up a time to socialize — but do so by email or messenger, and give the person plenty of time to respond. Don’t walk over to their desk five minutes after sending the message.
And when you do gather in person — whether for work meetings or social functions — give more physical space than is natural to you as well. This is especially important in our pandemic era. but even before COVID-19, introverts preferred more social distance.
If you’re an extrovert looking for more practical advice on making your workplace more introvert-friendly, check out this masterful guide on the subject.
5) Set clear parameters for meetings
This last solution is decidedly more work-oriented, but it’s vitally important. If you’re in a role where you’re responsible for calling or leading meetings, make it a habit to set clear parameters for those meetings.
There’s nothing quite so ominous to many in the workplace than an open-ended meeting. It could be about next month’s birthday party, or someone could be getting fired — no one knows for sure. There’s an uneasiness to attending a meeting like that, no matter your personality.
There’s another danger to holding ambiguous meetings. Some of your coworkers have to work a little harder to prepare to speak in public than you do. By sending an agenda ahead of time, you empower those coworkers to prepare their thoughts and get ready to share them.
If you put them on the spot in a meeting with no warning or prep time, you won’t get a thoughtful answer. And you might get one of the negative behaviors I listed earlier on.
Ways to overcome or sidestep others’ insecurities
While it’s always best to start with changes that you can make to your own behavior or presentation, it isn’t always possible to solve workplace insecurities in this way. Some employees have insecurities that run deep and connect to aspects of life outside the workplace.
In other words, nothing you do will completely free them from feelings of insecurity.
If you’re in a supervisor or management position, you may be able to do some work with these employees, coaching them to improve in their responses. But as a peer? You really can’t go there.
Instead, you can work on ways to overcome or sidestep those remaining insecurities. Here are a few strategies.
Retrain or reassign
Sometimes an employee is insecure because he or she simply isn’t skilled in a particular task. If your coworker isn’t keeping up with a particular task, it’s time to push for training (or retraining). If that doesn’t do the trick, ideally the employee should be reassigned to a task that’s a better fit.
Try a different pairing
If a coworker can’t overcome insecurities with you specifically, you may need to request a different pairing. If Susan is perfectly productive while working with Natasha but sloppy and terse when working with you, make that move and sidestep the insecurity.
Step Out of the Spotlight
If it seems like others won’t speak up when you’re in the room, ask a foundational question: do I really need to be in the room?
If you can remove yourself from the equation, the coworkers who are insecure about you may have the chance to speak up and shine. Of course, this isn’t always a feasible solution. But it’s worth trying when possible.
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