January 7

8 Signs coworkers are intimidated by you



I pass the room next-door. The window is slightly open to allow the smells of the cooking inside to drift out. I hear the laughter coming from within. My colleagues are having a hotpot.

And surprise, surprise, I’m not invited. I wasn’t even asked.

You may have faced the same. Found yourself uninvited for office get-togethers, for drinks after work, or even for lunch. You may have a nagging sense within you that your coworkers are intimidated by you. They seem scared by you.

When you enter the room, the room quietens down. Suddenly, no one knows what to say.

How do you tell that your coworkers are intimidated by you? But more importantly, why does this happen, and how can you overcome it?

Who are you to talk about this?

But before you read on, you may wonder,

Who are you to even talk about this?

Let me tell you who I’m not. I’m not a professor. I don’t have a PHD in workplace relations, having done a research thesis on what makes or breaks workplaces. I don’t want to pretend that I know everything.

I don't know everything
I don’t know everything

I’m someone who’s worked in different cultures like Peru, China, U.K. and Singapore. That has given me a different idea of how different cultures operate and has allowed me to understand why some cultures work so well, whilst others don’t. It’s given me the chance to compare and contrast different cultures, and to interrogate the question,

Why do some cultures bring out the best of people, whilst others don’t?

Secondly, I’m someone who’s failed. I was sacked from my first role with Google, as a field associate subcontracted under a project with them. For my job, I was supposed to carry a tablet around and map out different places of interest in Singapore. Sounds easy, right? How do you get sacked in a role like that?

Then I was issued with a Performance Improvement Plan in my next role.

I won’t lie. All these experiences have been painful. But they have helped me to see that as much as we can say,

I don’t care what people think of me.

Being liked in the workplace does matter.

Feeling that your colleagues are intimidated of you isn’t a helpful thing in your career. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to change that.

Why does this happen?

You’re smarter than others.

I remember the first time I suggested something to my colleague. I suggested that we try something for the upcoming programme. 4 hours later, there was an email sent out from our team leader, saying that I had to talk to him before I proposed any ideas, and that ‘there is no I in team’.

You’ve probably had occasions where your genius has shone more brightly than that of others. Here’s a possibility. Your colleagues may not like it.

Not many people like to lose. Especially if you’re younger than them. Showing yourself as smarter than others may cause others to feel threatened. They may feel that their chances for promotion are threatened. Or that the position as leader is in jeopardy.

Your workplace culture is built upon fear

coworkers are intimidated of you
Is your workplace founded on shame and fear?

I remember the time I worked in a charity. One afternoon, our boss called us together for an urgent meeting. He announced that our HR manager had been terminated. He was told to go immediately, without any transition period.

3 months alter, we were told that another manager wasn’t having her contract renewed. During these two meetings, when colleagues asked why they left, there wasn’t a clear answer. It fuelled the sense of fear within the organisation. That if you don’t do your job, you might lose your job.


Depending on the culture of your workplace, some cultures may be hyper competitive.

If you show yourself smarter or different in any way, you will be outcast, and left for dead. Growing up in a meritocratic society in Singapore, I used to think that it was the best idea that won. But later, I realised that some organisations ran on a system of autocracy, rather than meritocracy.

You deferred to the leader not because he was better, but because he was, well, the leader.

The highest ranking wins.

Google’s Project Aristotle wanted to find out why some teams were so much more better-performing than others. Together with Amy Edmondson, they found that the best cultures were built upon psychological safety.

Why psychological safety matters
Psychological safety as a foundation for great work

Huh? As my good friend, the Director of Health Programmes at the International Futures Forum Dr Margaret Hannah once put it, psychological safety is

Warmth + Trust.

Psychological safety is the feeling of walking into a meeting, and feeling that your ideas, however stupid, are safe. You don’t feel tense sharing a ‘stupid’ idea. You don’t feel scared for asking a question. Others aren’t scared of you.

A culture built upon fear may fuel the intimidation that others feel around you, because of the inherent power in your position. It may not be your fault.

How do you tell?

Here’s a list of telltale signs that your colleagues are intimidated of you.

  1. There is a hush that comes over the room the moment you walk in.
  2. There’s a strange awkwardness when you talk to them. Conversations don’t seem to flow as easily.
  3. Your colleagues arrange lunches and get-togethers without you around.
  4. They talk behind your back.
  5. You start hearing things from your supervisor about how you need to work better with others.
  6. You get complaints from your directors.
  7. You have poor appraisals, with your bosses telling you that you need to improve on your teamwork.
  8. Your clients start complaining about you.
    1. This usually happens because the sense of threat you feel about not being accepted and not belonging in your organisation ends up rubbing off on your client.

How do you resolve this?

Know your own value

Being excluded, and having people fear you is never nice.

It’s not wrong to be smarter than others. Or to be more gifted than others. You know more than them, you feel more than them, you’re able to be more effective than them. It’s not wrong to be better than others.

I share this because I want to say this. Sometimes, when you’re excluded, and you feel that others are intimidated by you, it can feel like it’s your fault. It’s your fault for not having tried hard enough. It’s your fault that you didn’t work harder to connect with others. It’s your fault for not knowing how to make others feel comfortable.

It’s not.

Lessons from my working history

Whenever I look back at the course of my (short, I know!) working history, I used to wonder why it always seemed like others didn’t like me that much, even though I did my best to help. I didn’t know why people seemed scared of me.

It was not until a day ago, during a walk with a friend that I realised that I needed to own my giftedness.

Here’s a question for you.

Are you owning your gift?

People were scared because they felt threatened.

My therapist had said as much 3 years ago. I simply did not listen.

Then, I shared with her how my colleagues seemed afraid of me. I shared about how I had been offering questions and comments on how to improve things, but my colleagues would give a slight frown. Or how there seemed to be a general awkwardness when I spoke to them.

coworkers are intimidated of you
Are others making you feel awkward at work?

She explained how when I raised these comments or questions, they were ‘bids’ for power in the room. They were an unconscious sign to colleagues that I was fighting for the position of ‘alpha male’, even when it wasn’t my intention.

People fight back when they are scared

I hesitated about owning my giftedness because I felt that it was wrong. After all, when I had suggested ideas at Google, pointed out to bosses about how certain people were taking advantage of the freedom given to not work, the ten other colleagues I had complained about me, sharing mistruths with my bosses. That experience had left me scarred, and scared of truly owning my identity and my gift.

Here’s some advice for you.

Own your gift. Be proud of it.

Be intentional about being nice

On the last day of work, I gave every colleague a present. Whether or not I liked them. A colleague who had complained many times about me to my boss ended up coming to me, smiling and telling me,


You have to call me next time when you see me!

I didn’t know why she said that. Didn’t she hate me?

Later I realised that as much as we weren’t great friends, things didn’t have to be so serious. I could still be kind to her.

Be kind, even when others don’t deserve your kindness. It goes a long way. When others are intimidated by you, it can feel like being kind to them and intentionally connecting to them is a waste of time and effort. But try it.

It does go a long way to helping others to feel that you’re not this detached, clinical, unwelcoming person. It shows people that you’re warm and caring, and that you’re still human.


When you’re trying to reach the top, it can feel like a very lonely process. You’re not well liked. Your coworkers seem intimidated by you. You ask yourself whether it’s worth it. It is.

I was recently talking to a friend. And she said to me,

John, I’m not trying to change the world.

Not all of us have to change the world.

It’s true. Today’s social media and connected world has allowed us to see what others are doing to change and impact the world. You can feel left behind because you’re not having the impact you want. You can feel even more left out because your coworkers are intimidated by your efforts to change the world in your own special way.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

But if you do decide to, then not everyone is going to welcome your changes. Not everyone will love you.

Some will be scared of the changes you herald.

That’s okay. Because people may not like you. People may not even believe in you.

But you have to first believe in yourself.


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