Overcoming ‘authority anxiety’

01/04/2022 09:29:00

A colleague notices their nerves when speaking to management.


I am new enough to the solicitors’ profession. I started working in a big Dublin Law firm five years ago. I enjoy the content of my work and generally I get on great with colleagues. I have noticed an issue though in my work which I am a bit embarrassed to be revealing. I get nervous and fearful when I have to speak to anyone in management - I feel very self-conscious and I find it much harder to express myself competently. Please help!


Firstly, well done on identifying your fear. Having an awareness of it is half the battle. Our fears are normally driven by limiting beliefs which may have been formed in our earlier years or as a result of a negative experience. In your case, perhaps something in the past caused you to be embarrassed or humiliated by an authority figure e.g. parent, teacher. Like Roald Dahl’s Matilda, were you taught to believe adults were smarter than you, that their opinions had more value than yours? As adults, we no longer believe this at a conscious level however, at a deeper level, we may be behaving as though we are automatically less than those above us in the hierarchy. We often fear being judged by these people. We may have felt embarrassed or dismissed by them in previous conversations which confirms our fear.

Next, let’s examine this fear of senior management.

How is this fear impacting my ability to fulfil my potential?

  • Do I shy away from putting my hand up for opportunities because it would mean I would have to work directly with a certain partner?
  • Do I resist offering my opinion on a subject I have researched because the senior associate has said something to the contrary?

What is the impact of me not fulfilling my potential?

  • Am I being overlooked for promotion?
  • Do I feel too burnt out to make an authentic and meaningful contribution to my firm and our clients because I hide my unique gifts and knowledge?
  • Do I wish for the weekend each week because I don’t feel I have any control over my own confidence and happiness Monday to Friday?

What would happen if I felt confident in my dealings with senior people?

  • I would see senior management as people who have been doing this a little longer than me and that they are not perfect. I don’t need to put them up on a pedestal.
  • I would talk to them as peers who are supporting my growth.
  • I would believe that progress is better than perfection and that I am showing up each day to improve as an individual and not to prove to anyone that I am good enough to be in this law firm.

You see, fear is always a choice. How others make us feel is also a choice.

Let’s say you knock on the partner’s door to go through the legal opinion you have being drafting for them and they bark “Not now, I am going on a call. Call back after 7pm and make sure it’s ready for my review”. You go back to your desk and you can’t help feeling rejected and terrified that if the draft is not perfect, they are going to think you’re not good enough. You get into a spiral of unhelpful thoughts like "They never have time for me. They think I am useless. In fact, maybe I’ll say I had to rush out, so I don’t have to face them this evening."

While this is an understandable reaction, it is not helpful and compassionate. We need to remember our worth is not measured by our productivity, how others treat us or any other external indicator. We can choose to react to this situation in a way that is more supportive of our growth with self-talk like. "Their shortness has nothing to do with me. I am doing my best, based on the skills and resources I have available to me. I am fully capable of managing myself with this partner as we both want to deliver the best outcome for our client."

We have the power to choose whether we to be critical of ourselves or whether to choose helpful, empowering thoughts and treat ourselves like we would our best friend. In all reality, why wouldn’t we? You have already identified your fear. You can also overcome it!

To submit an issue that you’d like to see addressed in this column, please email professionalwellbeing@lawsociety.ie. Confidentiality guaranteed.

This question and answer are hypothetical and written by Norma O’Sullivan, intuitive coach and people development consultant at The Way Home Consulting (www.thewayhomeconsulting.com). Any response or advice provided is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, psychological, financial, medical, legal, or other professional advice.

LegalMind is an independent and confidential mental-health support available to solicitors and their dependants, 24 hours a day, and can be contacted at 1800 81 41 77.