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Managerial Condescending Communication: What it Actually Means

Updated: Jun 28

In organizational behavior, communication is pivotal in influencing workplace culture and employee well-being. Among the neurodivergent interactions, managerial condescending communication is notably concerning on account of its particularly damaging impact. * This article delves into the meaning of condescending communication in management, its psychological underpinnings, and its implications for organizations.


Condescending communication refers to articulating messages in a patronizing manner. In the context of this article, the term refers to a manner of communication in which managers speak to their subordinates in a way that betrays a sense of superiority, belittlement, or disrespect.


Understanding the factors impacting managerial condescending communication at work is crucial as it directly affects employee well-being, organizational culture, and productivity. Recognizing the underlying elements can mitigate the negative effects on mental health and morale, foster constructive conflict resolution, promote mutual respect, enhance employee engagement and performance, and cultivate a positive organizational culture.



Condescending communication may be rooted in several psychological underpinnings.


Managers who feel insecure about their abilities may resort to condescending behavior as a defense mechanism to bolster their self-esteem and assert their authority. This phenomenon is supported by theories of psychological projection and compensation, where individuals deflect their own perceived inadequacies by diminishing others. Research by Fast et al. (2014) demonstrates that individuals with low self-esteem in leadership positions often engage in self-aggrandizing behaviors to compensate for insecurities. By putting others down, these managers attempt to elevate their own perceived status and competence, creating an illusion of superiority.


Emotional Intelligence (EI), posits Calavitta (2023), may be defined as the capacity to utilize one's awareness of emotions, apply emotional awareness to engage effectively and employ adaptive interactions to develop, balance, and maintain meaningful relationships. Essentially, emotional intelligence involves the ability to recognize and manage one's emotions and the emotions of others. Managers lacking this skill may not readily discern nor fully understand the negative impact of their words and actions, leading to inadvertent condescension.  


The hierarchical nature of organizations inherently involves power dynamics. Some managers may abuse their authority to assert dominance and control over their team members under the misguided impression that condescension is a channel to reinforce their position. Conversely, Bass & Riggio (2006) note that effective leadership is grounded in respect, empathy, and constructive communication. The perception of condescension as a tool to fortify managerial authority reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of effective leadership.


For employees subjected to condescending communication, employing certain psychological principles can help protect their mental health and well-being.


Cognitive restructuring ** signifies a systematic approach to identifying and challenging irrational or negative thoughts that arise in response to condescending communication. When employees encounter belittling comments from managers or colleagues, their initial reaction might be to internalize the negativity, leading to feelings of inadequacy, frustration, or anxiety. Cognitive restructuring helps employees recognize these automatic, often irrational thoughts and question their validity. For example, if an employee receives a condescending remark such as, "I didn't expect you to understand this," his/her immediate thought might be, "I'm not smart enough for this job." Through cognitive restructuring, the employee would first identify this negative thought and then challenge it by examining evidence and considering alternative perspectives. Reframing the thought to something more balanced, like, "This is a challenging task, but I have the skills and resources to figure it out," reduces the emotional impact of the condescending comment.


Emotional intelligence delimits reactivity to condescension. EI comprises self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and relationship management. Employees become more attuned to their emotional states and triggers by cultivating self-awareness. Self-regulation enables them to control impulsive reactions and maintain a calm demeanor, even in challenging situations. Social awareness involves understanding the emotions and perspectives of others, which can foster empathy and improve interpersonal interactions. Relationship management skills aid employees in communicating constructively in response to condescending interactions.


Establishing personal and professional boundaries can create a bulwark against the effects of condescending behavior. Communicating limits respectfully can reduce the frequency and impact of condescending interactions. This involves defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  For instance, a manager's feedback, "I can't believe you made such a simple mistake; I thought you were more competent," crosses the boundary of constructive criticism and descends into condescension. By clearly articulating boundaries, such as stating, "I appreciate feedback that helps me improve, but I do not appreciate comments that undermine my abilities," employees can communicate their expectations and reduce the likelihood of condescending interactions. Also, communicating assertively allows employees to express concerns confidently without being aggressive, thereby addressing condescending behavior directly and constructively.


Preparing for pushback is an effective strategy for dealing with condescension in the workplace. Anticipating potential negative reactions and preparing responses in advance can help employees maintain their composure and assertiveness when confronted with condescending behavior. This preparation involves practicing assertive communication techniques and having a clear plan for addressing disrespectful comments. For example, practicing assertiveness might entail using "I" statements to express feelings directly, such as stating, "I feel overwhelmed when tasks are assigned without considering my current workload. Could we discuss a more balanced approach?" Additionally, having a clear plan means anticipating potential scenarios and preparing respectful yet firm responses, like calmly redirecting the conversation back to constructive dialogue or setting boundaries around acceptable communication norms.


Offering sincere commendation to a condescending boss is one of the most difficult but paradoxically crucial and strategic methods of addressing condescension. Commendation reinforces positive behaviors while subtly encouraging a shift towards more respectful interactions. By highlighting managers' strengths and contributions, employees not only validate their leadership qualities but also promote a culture of appreciation and mutual respect. This approach leverages principles of positive reinforcement, where acknowledging desirable behaviors increases the likelihood of recurrence. Psychologically, this process can influence the bosses' self-perception and awareness of their impact on others, fostering empathy and promoting a more supportive workplace environment. Moreover, commendation validates managerial competence and expertise. Such validation alleviates feelings of inadequacy and ameliorates defensive and condescending behaviors associated with insecurity.


Seeking assistance from colleagues or supervisors can effectively manage instances of condescension. Seeking support can provide individuals with validation and guidance on how to respond to the situation. Engaging with trusted peers or higher authorities affords a broader perspective on whether the conduct breaches established professional standards and necessitates formal intervention. For instance, candidly discussing specific incidents of condescension with a mentor or human resources representative can yield actionable insights or procedural measures to address the issue proactively. By invoking aid judiciously, individuals not only fortify their readiness to confront disrespectful conduct but also contribute to cultivating an organizational ethos grounded in mutual respect and collective accountability.





You may have no control over condescending behavior, but you can proactively control your reaction. Research affirms that learning and professional development can reinforce self-worth and competence (Dweck, 2016). Additionally, the work of Locke and Latham (2002) emphasizes that pursuing personal and professional goals can provide a sense of purpose and direction, which is essential for mitigating the demoralizing effects of condescending behavior. These strategies combined also equip employees with resilience and a positive outlook, enabling them to effectively counteract the negative impact of condescension in the workplace. If you would like personalized help in reaching personal or professional goals, book a consultation with VIP English Learners.



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* All forms of condescending speech are potentially damaging, regardless of whether they originate from superiors or counterparts. However, condescending communication from managers is especially profound, due to power dynamics, career implications, emotional repercussions, and broader impacts on organizational culture. This article specifically focuses on managerial-mediated condescending communication.



The content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute professional advice.

VIP English Learners does not endorse or promote any specific intervention, or viewpoint. It is crucial to recognize the complexity of individual experiences, and conclusions drawn from the article should not be applied universally.

The author and publisher disclaim any liability for any adverse effects or consequences resulting directly or indirectly from the information provided in this article.

Ultimately, the aim is to contribute to the broader understanding of the topic and stimulate informed discussions.
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