by Laura Crawshaw, author, president, Executive Insight Development Group

Taming the Abrasive Manager: Words from the Boss Whisperer

Jan 24, 20088 mins
IT LeadershipRelationship Building

Bully boss in your office? Here are some tips and advice for senior management.

You manage managers. Through training and experience you’ve learned how to manage tasks and teams to achieve objectives and get deliverables out the door. But how much training have you had on how to manage unmanageable managers, otherwise known as abrasive bosses?

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Abrasive bosses rub their staff the wrong way with their aggressive management styles, displaying behaviors ranging from mild offense to open attack. The words and actions of these individuals create interpersonal friction that grates on subordinates, peers and even their superiors, grinding away at trust and motivation, and ultimately disrupting the smooth flow of work. Abrasive bosses can inflict deep wounds and intense suffering in employees, and the pain of working for or with an abrasive boss is usually felt by the company as well, eroding effectiveness and paralyzing productivity. (For more on reporting up to a bully boss, see How to Deal With Bully Bosses.)

Dollars and Sense

Abrasive bosses can cause endless headaches for their bosses, who struggle to rein them in and stanch the flow of complaints from distressed employees. Tolerating abrasive bosses is expensive when calculated in the costs of absenteeism, lowered productivity, attrition of valued employees and harassment litigation. And senior managers who fail to intervene with an abrasive boss will be viewed by employees as tacitly condoning the abuse: “They’ve let this stuff go on for years—they don’t do anything about him because they don’t care anything about us—it’s all about making a buck.”

More often than not, upper management tends to avoid intervening, but not because they don’t care—it’s because they’re afraid. These fears fall into two categories: the fear of being harmed by the abrasive boss (“If we confront him he’ll quit and we can’t afford to lose his expertise” or “What if she sues us?”) and the fear of doing harm to the abrasive boss (“I don’t want to hurt her—she’s been loyal and works harder than anyone else” or “He’s already got family problems—I don’t want to add to his burden.”) Companies also fail to intervene because they view the situation as hopeless: “He denies that he’s the problem—he blames everything on our tight deadlines” or “We’ve talked to him/her, but things only improved for a few weeks.” It’s also not uncommon for management to avoid dealing with the problem of an abrasive boss through the defense mechanisms of denial (“She’s just got some difficult employees”), minimization (“He doesn’t blow up that often”) or delay (“It won’t be long before he retires.”)

Tips for Taming Your Subordinate

So how do you tame the abrasive boss who works for you? The first step is to understand what you’re dealing with.

Because of their intimidating, aggressive styles, it can be a stretch to believe that these fear-inspiring individuals are themselves driven by fear. The common myth holds that abrasive bosses are evil or crazy, continually contemplating new ways to torment their coworkers. I have found the exact opposite to be true: The majority of abrasive bosses are afraid. They have a deep need to be perceived as competent, and anything that threatens that perception of competence stirs their anxiety and must be defended against. In other words, when these bosses detect the slightest hint of incompetence in others that could threaten their success, they attack. They’re not intent on doing harm—they just want to go about their business, but you’ll pay if you get in their way.

The second step is to understand that the majority of abrasive bosses don’t see that they’re abrasive, or if they do, they don’t see how much damage they do to others—they’re clueless about the wounds they inflict. As one executive said, “I don’t get it —why don’t they see what they do? And when you point it out to them, why don’t they get that they’re causing damage?”

Abrasive bosses are generally blind to their impact on others because they lack the ability to read others’ emotional reactions to their abrasive behavior. A classic example: A CEO once complained that his senior management team sat silently when he pressed them for ideas. When I asked why he thought they didn’t respond, he answered: “I don’t know—they’re either lazy or stupid.” He was totally blind to the possibility (later confirmed as fact) that his management team didn’t voice their ideas for fear that he would attack them. He was unaware that his tendency to, as one manager put it, “chew up and spit out” their input instilled fear. Only after the blinders came off did he see his role in the dysfunctional communication.

Effective Management or Intimidation?

Where do abrasive bosses develop their harsh management styles? Abuse is learned, and more often than not they learned this style of interaction from childhood, school or work environments where they were subjected to similar aggression and emotions were ignored. As one VP said, “This is the way I was raised, and look where it got me in the company. I don’t see how you treat nonperformers with respect and dignity.” Surprisingly, they view their aggression as an effective management tool, unaware that their efforts to motivate are perceived as strategies to intimidate—and often have the opposite effect of quashing productivity.

Leopards may not be able to change their spots, but many abrasive bosses can change their (blind) spots once they’re made aware of their unacceptable aggression. I’ll never forget the executive, who, as he was about to be presented with feedback on the nature and impact of his abrasive style, casually commented, “Don’t worry—I’m sure I’ve heard it all before—I know I can be hard on people.” By the time we reached the twelfth page of feedback vividly recounting the pain and anger experienced by his employees, he clutched at his chest, gasping, “This is the worst day of my professional life—I had no idea people see me this way.” He expressed deep remorse and embarrassment over his newly realized interpersonal incompetence and successfully worked to change his management style.

The Three-Step Program for Bullies

Equipped with the insights that abrasive bosses are driven by fears of being perceived as incompetent and that they’re blind to their impact on others, you’ll be prepared to intervene more effectively. Intervention consists of three steps: 1) making them see what they do, 2) making them care enough to change, and 3) offering help. These steps are easier said than done and it’s easy to get pulled into defensive debates while trying to get abrasive bosses to see what they do. Making them care enough to change involves setting clear limits with serious consequences, followed by the offer of help in the form of internal mentoring or external coaching.

Intervention isn’t the only strategy available to eliminate workplace intimidation. Company leaders also need to talk and walk a code of respectful workplace conduct. The character of an organization is predicated on the character of its top leaders, and if they fail to model respectful behavior it will be difficult, if not impossible, to hold managers lower on the chain accountable for acceptable interpersonal conduct. A written code of conduct doesn’t require elaborate definition, either: We know it when we see it, and we feel it when we don’t. Simply stating that all employees will be treated with respect can be enough, and don’t fall for the protest that “People have to earn my respect before I’ll treat them with respect.” No business can wait that long.

Abrasive bosses aren’t demons or monsters: George Washington, our first chief executive officer, was known for his abrasive management style, which caused Alexander Hamilton to quit his employ: Thomas Jefferson said he had a temper that “had its raw edges…and when they were incautiously touched, he could become dangerous to those around him.” Washington worked hard throughout his life to manage his aggression, later noted by his portraitist Gilbert Stuart, who said that Washington’s temper was under “wonderful control.”

Turning a blind eye to workplace intimidation is unacceptable and unethical. We need to stop demonizing abrasive bosses and start giving the problem of workplace friction the recognition it deserves.

Laura Crawshaw, also known as “The Boss Whisperer,” is the president of Executive Insight Development Group and author of Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to End Unnecessary Roughness in the Workplace.