We have all worked with an abrasive or “toxic” manager, and as an executive coach, I am often helping my clients “deal with” a difficult manager they work for, or working directly with the manager others find abrasive and difficult.

I have a love-hate relationship with these situations because I am attracted to the opportunity to show real value and change that will improve people’s lives at work, yet challenged by the difficulty of making a positive impact on a situation others have failed to change.

In the following article by my colleague Patrick Reilly, who is President of Resources in Action and a highly successful and experienced executive coach, Patrick provides thoughtful yet practical ideas for working with this type of leader.
Thoughtful, because Patrick deals first with understanding why this happens, including a systems or cultural view (vs. only focusing on the difficult individual), and practical because it provides immediate actions one can take to start to shift behaviors and outcomes.

I especially appreciate the following key points:

  • Individuals act in part because of the system or culture they are in: if the people around the leader tolerate and adapt to the abrasive behavior (“Yes,  Bob is a real bully, but he gets things done, so…”), its no surprise the leader does not change.  One must take a systems view and understand what Kurt Lewin called “the field” the behavior is occurring in.
  • Patrick’s focus on understanding and valuing Dignity as a driver of change. Toxic behavior is just that: poisonous.  A business case based on the impact on human beings must be built to motive change and measure results.  Your company’s value and vision statements may help here.
  • Coaches, consultants and HR professionals need special skills, tools and experience to assist abrasive leaders in understanding their impact.  These leaders are usually clueless.  All self-development starts with increased self-awareness.  As a leadership coach, my tools to improve self-awareness include 360 feedback, self-assessments, and direct observation.   If self-awareness is successful and the leader makes a choice to change, I can then help them develop their skills in inquiry/advocacy, agreement building, exchanging (not just giving) feedback and resolving conflict.