By Julia Menaul
Brusque Bosses: Handling the Abrasive Manager

Brusque Bosses: Handling the Abrasive Manager

Do you work with anyone like this?


“it’s like walking on egg shells... He sees something that sets him off then we are tense all day"


“coming to work is a breeze when they are not in!"


“He talks down to people quite abruptly. Almost interrogating them. he makes people feel like idiots"


“He has no patience and doesn't trust people to do the job properly so you end up playing safe and not using your initiative in case it upsets him"


Working with abrasive managers can make daily work a nightmare for everyone around them especially their direct reports. Laura Crawshaw in her paper for the International Journal of Coaching in Organisations called the people around abrasive managers the "working wounded" because of the trauma caused for subordinates, peers and even superiors. She defines an abrasive leader as an individual with managerial authority whose interpersonal behaviour causes emotional distress in co workers sufficient to disrupt organisational functioning.



So how do you help, rather than sack this person?


After all sometimes these people are important to the company for the other things they bring to the workplace such as increased sales, enormous technical ability, seniority or great contacts. Most HR professionals who may be charged with "sorting out this person" want to be seen to provide a fair and equitable developmental approach so that if the worst happens (dismissal and possible tribunal) then the company can be seen to have tried their best to help the abrasive manager.


What is abrasive behaviour?


This can be, although not limited to

  • Rudeness
  • Demeaning others
  • Public ridicule
  • Swearing
  • Explosive outbursts
  • Over control
  • Insults and name calling
  • Deception


Abrasive behaviours can be deemed as such if they appear over a period of time as a pattern of behaviour in someone. All the above over a period of time can lead to the destruction of an individual’s well being as well as poor organisational effectiveness. Companies can lose valuable employees, morale decreases, stress increases, legal action such as grievances become common and in extreme cases violence occurs in the workplace.


Why do abrasive managers behaviour in the way they do?


From the research it seems that most of these people are not deliberately setting out to harm others. They often appear clueless about the effect on others. This is because their behaviour is linked to how they feel about themselves rather than others around them. They may see incompetence around them (their perception) and feel threatened by this, be defensive as a first line of attack if they perceive aggression in others, see their aggression as actually being assertive to get things done, and know they are not liked but not realise they have caused this; " they are just out to get me!"


Hence when they have been challenged about their behaviour the abrasive manager does not see that he is the problem and is likely to blame others around him instead.


The TAD Dynamic


The TAD dynamic helps us to understand what is going on here for the abrasive manager and leads to strategies to change their behaviour. When humans perceive a threat the fight- flight response is activated which helps us to defend against this threat. So TAD stands for threat > anxiety> defence. This is the case whether the threat is physical or psychological.


With abrasive leaders any threat (perceived by them to be real) to their professional competence instigates the fight response. Thus they are doing it through fear of not being good enough and see co workers jeopardising this for them. As Crawshaw points out in her paper

"Abrasive leaders are not evil or insane; they are afraid"


How do you Coach the abrasive leader?


Often abrasive leaders are referred to coaching as a last resort after others have tried a variety of interventions that have not worked. By then his interpersonal incompetence over shadows his technical competence and the negative perception of the company starts to suggest career derailment for the abrasive manager. So how do you engage the abrasive manager in coaching when they don't think they are the problem? There are some key things for a coach right at the start:

  • Confidentiality must be assured as the client (the abrasive manager) may suspect the coach of being an organisational spy and the anxiety this engenders does not create a good climate for coaching.
  • The Coach needs to show appreciation of their clients strengths not just focus on the problems.
  • The Coach needs to build trust as an ally; Don’t try to get them to relinquish their behaviours as they will deny or defend


Abrasive leaders are blind and often deaf to the pain they cause as often they do not get feedback mainly because people are fearful of giving them any! Data can be collected via interviews with the coach or a 360 process which will give the coachee a chance to look at the negative perceptions. If this is done with a wide cross section of people then it is more difficult to argue with. In my own coaching work, I have had a client who started to defend against his 360 feedback because people were quite harsh in their comments. He read the report and said “but that is not me!" - Classic abrasive manager territory. He was actually devastated that people felt this way and I have seen many like him, men and women become very tearful at the realisation. Once it had sunk in that 15 people couldn't be concocting a major conspiracy against him then we started to move onto the most important part of working with the abrasive manger.


The secret to getting the abrasive manager motivated to change.


From all the above we can see that the secret is NOT to focus on changing his behaviour. The secret is how you might work together in alliance with him to change the NEGATIVE PERCEPTIONS that others have of him. A paradigm shift and a subtle difference!


Two key questions for the coach to use are:

  • What generates these negative perceptions?
  • What could eliminate them and prevent their return?


The first question helps the coachee to work out that maybe when employees are criticised publicly they feel humiliated and maybe that becomes a threat for them ( back to the TAD theory) The second question above may then link to this by getting the client to work out how he could influence this negativity e.g. " I suppose if I have a problem with someone I could discuss it privately with them" He can then test this hypothesis back in the workplace to see if it starts to remove negative perceptions.


Why is it important for the abrasive leader to inform everyone of his new approach?


My experience of these types of managers also suggests that it is important for the leader to let people know that he is trying to change his behaviour so that they can tune their radar to look for the new behaviour. If this is not done then when you ask employees if they have seen a change in their leader’s behaviour say 3- 6 months down the line then they may say that have not seen any change because they were not actively looking for it. People can retain an image of someone for quite a while after new evidence has appeared to the contrary.


New feedback may also highlight other areas that still require work and the coach and leader can revisit the above questions again based on new information.

So for example:

Feedback from Employee "he didn't criticise her outright in the meeting but he did that eye ball rolling thing so we all knew"

Coach: what generated this negative perception?

Leader: “rolling my eyes still made it look like I was criticising and they all saw that"

Coach: what could eliminate this perception and prevent its return?

Leader: I could be careful about my body language


All the above of course depends on the feedback process. Sometimes 360 frameworks don't provide the specific individual comments that would create the paradigm shift. In these cases a coach is best to do individual interviews with co workers where they can question, probe and draw out specific examples of abrasive leader behaviour.


If you are struggling to work with an abrasive manager, we would love to help. Contact us at Spark Coaching & Training - our coaches have worked with the trickiest of clients and seen great results. The return on your investment will never be greater!


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Julia Menaul

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