If the ingredients of a successful workplace team include trust, open communication, support, respect, cohesiveness, healthy conflict, and fun … what happens when an abrasive leader or “bully boss” is tossed into the mix?
You got it - a recipe for disaster for the whole organization! If that leader’s behavior were to change, would the organization be more successful? The answer is a resounding yes - but how?
What is an abrasive leader?
Let’s start with some clarifying definitions. The Boss Whispering Institute defines an abrasive leader this way: “Abrasive leaders rub their co-workers the wrong way. Their words and actions create interpersonal friction that grates on subordinates, peers, and even superiors, eroding employee motivation and organizational productivity. Abrasive conduct can range on a continuum from mildly irritating to severely disruptive (otherwise known as workplace bullying).”
Founder of The Boss Whispering Institute Dr. Laura Crawshaw exploded the myth that so-called “bully bosses” intentionally set out to harm employees. Her research reveals the opposite. Abrasive leaders typically are blind to the wounds they inflict; they lack the ability to read other’s emotions, and often are coachable and able to change their behaviors.
Why should you worry if you have - or ARE - an abrasive leader?
As Conflict Advisers, we work with conflict situations that can make or break an organization, especially the fragile startup. We have seen situations in which personalities have clashed and - unmanaged - have escalated to the point of costly court-ordered dispute resolution, high employee turnover, or even team/partner separations.
A person often rises to a leadership position because of their outstanding ability to execute the technical tasks of their work. While this is an important aspect of leadership, it’s not the only one. An effective leader also needs to be able to “move people in the right direction - to motivate them to do the right thing at the right time, which requires interpersonal competence,” says Dr. Crawshaw. “Competent leaders...know how to relate to coworkers in socially acceptable ways to promote stable working relationships and ensure the smooth flow of work. They’re insightful enough to consistently interact in a manner that their coworkers perceive as respectful.”
Herein lies the problem. A leader who doesn’t have these interpersonal skills or capacity is often not respectful, relies on aggression to motivate others and “flogs the work forward.” Their behavior causes emotional distress - wounds, pain - in their coworkers. Commonly exhibited behaviors of abrasive leaders are reported to be over-control, threats, public humiliation, condescension, and overreaction.
The abrasive leader gets things done, but at what cost?
‘Sometimes you have to kick ass when the heat is on…’
Dr. Crawshaw tells of a surgeon she coached who made this case, “arguing that he needed to shout, throw surgical instruments, and kick doors to get his assistants to perform adequately.”
Research - and logic - show that the opposite effect is what happens. His team was actually more unnerved by his angry, abusive behavior and made more errors, not less. Recent neuroscientific research shows that in response to threat, the brain’s capacity to think analytically and solve problems becomes impaired. And we know that high stress levels set up roadblocks to our mental alertness, health, energy, and personal and professional relationships.
Our research shows that the costs of negative conflict caused by destructive behaviors can be measured in dollars and, if unaddressed, can have serious consequences to the health of an organization.
Abrasive behavior is learned - and can be unlearned
The abrasive leader doesn’t mean to do harm to others. They typically don’t see that their behavior is having an impact on coworkers’ emotions; they don’t understand why people are upset. ‘It’s nothing personal - it’s just business. The job has to get done.’
Often they are acting out of their own stress and anxiety, fear of failure or being seen as incapable, feeling threatened. What is also true is that they are cognitively brilliant, have great instincts, and want to be successful - meaning they are coachable.
They need to develop insight into the perceived effect their behavior has on others, and reframe their unrealistic expectation that ‘everyone should be just like me.’ They need to learn how to gain control of their aggressive defense tactics against perceived threats. They can learn to develop strategies to “achieve their objectives with carrots rather than sticks.”
Professional intervention and specialized coaching are effective solutions to this situation. It takes difficult conversations, courage, tough love, and time. But the results are worth it!
It starts with awareness and reporting by those affected by these behaviors, for employees to uphold their duty to provide a respectful workplace. And it takes an organizational culture and leadership open enough to hear the distress signals, and commitment to providing a safe workplace that protects their employees from psychological harm.
If you are experiencing an abrasive leader/boss situation, or believe you might be an abrasive leader, let’s have a confidential conversation. Schedule a conversation with one of our conflict advisers here.