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.
Dealing with the Abrasive Leadership Style at Work
By Patrick Reilly, President, Resources In Action, Inc.
Abrasive employees rub their coworkers the wrong way. The aggressive management style of abrasives creates interpersonal friction that grates on subordinates, peers, superiors and even customers, paralyzing productivity and disrupting the smooth flow of work.
These disruptive individuals also present particular challenges from the Human Resources perspective as HR professionals must deal with distressed employees who feel marginalized by them, as well as senior managers who are often reluctant to take the bull by the horns and rein in the abrasive manager.
Recent research by Donna Hicks PhD (Author of: Dignity-The Essential Role it Plays in Conflict has identified 10 elements of dignity:
*Acceptance of Identity *Fairness
*Inclusion *Benefit of the Doubt
When any of these elements of dignity is infringed upon – the frequent result of an abrasive’s impact on others — there is a potential for withdrawal, conflict, fatigue or lack of focus from impacted individuals that limits any potential synergies in the work place. Abrasive leaders can impact the dignity of a broad spectrum of employees over time driving productivity and satisfaction down while the associated costs soar.
Most abrasive leaders perform and produce results. So why should we care about the impact they have on others if they get the job done and generate revenue or develop new products?
It is simple – these types of leaders often put significant projects at risk because other employees withdraw, don’t work as hard as they need to, or spend too much time talking with others about how to deal with “him or her.” Good people quit and some customers move to other service providers because they don’t or can’t work with this person because of the abrasive interpersonal style. It becomes “too much.”
The way in which these leaders communicate to others and how they conduct themselves becomes more important than the work itself. To work with them is trying and emotionally draining. These interactions cost your organization time and money. Can you continue to tolerate disruptive behavior when it detracts significantly from work quality, timely delivery and increased customer complaints? We think not.
What can we do from an HR perspective? There are three areas of management expertise that need to be strengthened:
1) Develop specialized executive coaching expertise in working directly with extremely competent but abrasive individuals who humiliate, threaten and act in condescending ways to other employees or customers
2) Provide influence and management tools and skills that support those employees who have to deal with abrasive leaders
3) Learn how to work within an organizational system that permits unacceptable workplace behaviors
A problem in many organizations today is that HR professionals are limited in their capabilities for dealing with abrasive leaders and are ill equipped to handle the impact they have. (In some instances HR also becomes the target of this type of behavior.)
Step one on the path to improvement in all three areas is new knowledge or awareness. In our experience — the biggest learning in dealing with abrasive leaders is that their “bad” behavior is not intentional. They most times are clueless about their impact on others.
We have gained greatest success using a systematic coaching approach that focuses directly on the abrasive leader and includes senior management, HR support, clear, specific data from targeted interviews and a business coach skilled in working specifically with these types of individuals. Helping the abrasive leader become more effective usually requires actively supporting the individual in changing some non-productive behaviors. The first critical step is that they need to become aware of their impact on others.
Abrasive leaders require special handling because they usually can’t change as quickly or easily as others. Here is what we suggest:
- A robust support structure
- Precise, specific feedback that helps them learn how they come across to others
- Knowledge about the impact they create
- Focused coaching on the most important behaviors
- Deliberate practice to learn new and more effective behaviors
To support employees who need sophisticated influence tools to deal with abrasive leaders we have found that an integrated set of tools originally designed by the Navy Seals to handle extreme pressure to be most helpful. Developed from recent brain science research, this integrated set of tools enables employees to calm and focus themselves during periods of high stress. The tool set consists of a brief centering meditation like activity, goal setting, goal visualization and positive self-talk. Clients report the tools to be most helpful in dealing with both abrasive co-workers as well as organizational stress.
Another area of awareness required deals with the organizational system itself. Why do certain organizations permit or tolerate abrasive behavior? Usually it is “bottom line blindness” and lack of leadership courage. Business is essentially about profit and in those organizations that tolerate abrasive behavior we find there are frequently two main reasons for accepting it:
1) It is tolerated because the abrasive leader performs at a high level. She or he is usually very smart, talented and contributes significantly to the profitability the organization demands. Once the business decides that profit is paramount it essentially chooses to ignore the long-term costs of the abrasive behavior usually resulting in:
- Lowered work group morale
- Increased turnover
- Diminished long-term profits
2) The abrasive leader’s superiors do not have the courage or skills to tackle the unacceptable behavior of the troublesome person. They tolerate the behavior for fear of losing profits or because they truly don’t know how to help the abrasive individual change his or her ways.
Our experience has taught us that the biggest impact HR professionals can bring in this area is to develop a compelling business case that addresses the costs and consequences of abrasive behavior. When costs are clearly defined they can compel senior management to resolve the problem. By learning to develop a compelling business case about an abrasive leader’s impact, HR professionals can help to implement reasonable and cost effective solutions.
We know that it is tough to mount arguments that counter bottom line profitability. We also know how tough it is to tackle the problems that abrasive leaders present. But because of our work and expertise in these matters we have developed understanding and compassion for these challenges.
Sometimes the work is not very enjoyable and it is hard. A leader who takes on the abrasive employee must be a skillful communicator, be clear within themselves what makes certain strategies work and be committed to tackling tough interpersonal issues. These are not necessarily the types of challenges most leaders have been trained to deal with. But can you allow abrasive behavior to hamper project success or even derail entire business outcomes?
Our mission is to reduce workplace suffering. We accomplish that by working directly with abrasive leaders, providing powerful tools to help those who must work with them and by helping organizations to develop strategies to facilitate leadership courage and eliminate “bottom line blindness.”
If you have questions about what is possible or need tools or other resources to enable you or your company to deal with the tough challenges surrounding abrasive leaders, we’d love to hear from you.
2012 All Rights Reserved
(Specialists in dealing with the Abrasive Leader @ Work)