In my work as a workplace mediator I have encountered thirteen projects to date that have involved a leader with an abrasive leadership style. It’s been hard for me to admit but it took eight of those cases over several years, before I really understood what was going on - and what to do about it. In most of those eight cases the parties negotiated to some kind of agreement that more or less stuck, yet remaining underneath those agreements was the abrasive behavior of the leader/individual that had not been addressed in a substantial way.
If this type of behavior exists in the parties/team we are working with, and we have not been able to support the team and organization in dealing with it, we are merely enabling the team to patch the problem and are not working with the underlying system at play. Eventually the negative outcomes from the abrasive behavior will negate the agreement and come back to damage the workplace, and importantly, the people involved.
At some point in your work with employees, leaders, and teams (and as one of 60 million adults in the U.S.) you have likely come face-to-face with abrasive (bullying) behavior. I am not talking here about a personality conflict but a chronic pattern of disrespectful behavior.
What does this behavior look like? Abrasive conduct can range from mildly irritating to severely disruptive (otherwise known as workplace bullying). The effect on professional relationships and on the entire organization can be devastating, resulting in employee flight, reduced productivity, partner separations, and even litigation.
Here are some examples of abrasive behavior:
- Swearing at others
- Intimidation: glaring, snorting, etc.
- Intentionally ignoring or excluding others
- Publicly criticizing others
- Condescension / Claims intellectual superiority
- Sarcasm: hostile humor
- Making threats
- Abruptly walking out of meetings
- Throwing objects
Here are some typical symptoms of abrasive leadership:
- Complaints regarding the individual's interactions with coworkers, customers, contractors, patients, students, etc.
- Attempts by employees to transfer out of the leader’s department or avoid being transferred in
- Attrition of valued employees
- Decreased morale and motivation
- Potential or actual harassment litigation
A major roadblock to system change and your process: What if the harmful behavior is coming from the most treasured talent?
Of course, everyone is valuable in the workplace, and this is especially true from the vantage point of an unbiased mediator. Yet when the abrasive behavior comes from a leader with broad influence and power, it can be a very challenging situation — the elephant in the room that nobody wants (or dares) to get near. The behavior is often tolerated because the person’s work is valuable — even seen as indispensable. So then, is “abrasive” behavior something we’re supposed to accept, work around, or forgive in the name of their expert contribution?
For one whose mediation work has involved abrasive leader situations — my answer is an emphatic NO, we are not supposed to accept abrasive behavior as any part of our process. We find that ultimately, abrasive behavior in the workplace does more harm than good. One study showed these results reported by employees who had experienced the effects of an abrasive leader:
- 48% intentionally decreased their work effort
- 63% lost work time avoiding the offender
- 66% said their performance declined
- 78% said their commitment to the organization declined
- 12% left their job because of the experience
The good news: Abrasive behavior is learned — and can be unlearned
Dr. Laura Crawshaw’s (The Boss Whispering Institute) research has exploded the myth that abrasive leaders intentionally set out to harm others. Instead, she found the opposite — lacking the ability to read other’s emotions, the majority of abrasive leaders are blind to the wounds they inflict. Often they are coachable, able to unlearn and shift their behaviors for the better.
Crawshaw tells the story of a surgeon she coached who defended his behavior by “arguing that he needed to shout, throw surgical instruments, and kick doors to get his assistants to perform adequately.” What was actually the case is that the surgeon’s team was so unnerved by his angry, abusive behavior that they made more errors, not less.
Regardless of “style” or personality, the point is that if an individual’s conduct causes emotional distress — wounds, pain — in their coworkers, it is an issue that must be addressed.
As the mediator, where to start?
Changing abrasive behavior is possible but it takes backbone and focused effort. It may take specialized expertise beyond our mediation tools and role in order to present the negative perceptions to the leader in question, explore what’s behind those perceptions and their behaviors, and find ways to change their management style so the perceptions go away for good. And, creating change will most certainly take the involvement of those who manage the abrasive individual.
AWARENESS - Addressing the elephant in the room starts with awareness and reporting from those affected by these behaviors, and diagnosis. If you are a mediator hearing employee complaints in or out of the mediation room, how do you determine if there is unacceptable conduct going on? For our own analysis we built a unique tool called the Abrasive Leader Diagnostic™, designed to identify the nature and scope of abrasive conduct. A short questionnaire provides an instant report with results and next-step recommendations. We offer it now online, confidential (no personal info captured), and free, in order to empower you to diagnose the situation yourself and get a 360 view of what’s going on. It has helped me on numerous projects to gain clarity on the interpersonal situation.
UNDERSTANDING – that for both ethical and practical reasons, it is the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace that protects their employees from psychological harm. It is our responsibility to both balance power, and address underlying systems that will potentially torpedo the agreements parties have negotiated. As a mediator, how do you address this issue and maintain confidentiality? The answer: Catch it early during your intake process, or with either the convener of the process, the manager of the person in question, or the abrasive leader themselves.
SHIFTING - If you find a positive diagnosis of abrasive behavior, be prepared to end or postpone the mediation process, then make suggestions for the next steps the people involved can take. Clear thinking and a solid diagnosis give you the capacity to address behavioral issues successfully before they cause harm or sabotage the process. Here are some questions to start that conversation:
- What kind of complaints, if any, have you had? Over time, have there been any investigations by you or others?
- What is your experience with abrasive behavior in workers and in leadership?
- Have you noticed abrasive leaders or “toxic” workers in your workplace? And how are they affecting you?
- What do your policies or guidelines for civil behavior in your workplace look like?
AND FINALLY - As mediators, we are hired and trusted to come into a situation and use our best judgment and experience to deliver results in the form of durable negotiated agreements and changed behavior. In rare situations we will encounter abrasive behavior by one or more parties, and in those cases we must be prepared to shift our process to accommodate the landscape and serve the parties in the best way possible.