Abrasive managers

Common abrasive manager behaviours

Abrasive managers. We’ve all met at least one. Regrettably, some of us have met several.

There is a spectrum of abrasive manager behaviour: some abrasive managers are definitely worse than others. There are however common themes:

  • Abrasive managers show interpersonal aggression in the workplace (in a variety of forms – see the image)
  • Abrasive behaviours are designed to intimidate and assert the abrasive manager’s authority
  • They are often the result of the abrasive manager’s fear of failure and low levels of empathy
  • These behaviours cause emotional distress and suffering in co-workers
  • Unchecked, abrasive managers damage the organisation by eroding effectiveness and paralysing productivity

Common abrasive manager behaviours include;

  • Volatile, overreacts with co-workers
  • Outbursts of temper; shouting, swearing, aggressive language
  • Engages in public humiliation / criticism
  • Name calling, insulting
  • Condescending, disrespectful
  • Micro-managing
  • Controlling, issuing orders; ‘just do it!’
  • Does not welcome discussion or input
  • Uses threats (e.g.dismissal)
  • Sows dissension within the team; uses favouritism and discrimination
  • Blaming

Abrasive leaders do respond to specialist coaching: around 80% show permanent improvement to acceptable workplace norms after coaching. Do get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Why are some managers so abrasive?

It’s tempting to think of abrasive managers as narcissists, intentional bullies or simply bad people.

However that isn’t the experience of most of us who coach these abrasive leaders.

Whilst there may be a few genuinely bad eggs, the overwhelming majority are surprised and usually horrified when they discover (through the anonymised 360 feedback we provide):

  • how they are perceived by co-workers, and
  • the effect their behaviour has had on others.

Research shows that abrasive managers:

  • Often perceive subordinates as less competent than them
  • See that perceived lack of competence as a threat to their survival
  • Are motivated by a fear of professional failure
  • Respond to that fear with abrasive, controlling behaviours
  • Mistakenly assume that being abrasive towards their co-workers will encourage them to perform better
  • Tend to have very low natural levels of empathy
  • Have little insight into the effects of their behaviour (pre-coaching)

In order to coach abrasive leaders effectively, it’s important to understand their reasons and the motivation for behaving as they do.

Abrasive managers see co-workers’ perceived incompetence as a threat to their position. They misguidedly try to motivate co-workers to perform by ‘beating them up’.

Invariably they also lack empathy and insight into their behaviours.

The good news is that:

  • empathy can be learned
  • most abrasive managers respond very well to specialist coaching.

How do abrasive managers get away with it for so long?

Abrasive managers might get away with it for so long for the following reasons:

  • Abrasive managers are usually stellar performers
  • Management fear they will leave if challenged
  • …or that they will turn their aggression on managements
  • Management often:
  • Make excuses (“she’s under a lot of pressure”)
  • Downplay the seriousness of the behaviour
  • Use displacement (by transferring to another department or removing supervisory responsibilities)
  • Delay (waiting for the abrasive manager to leave or retire)
  • Senior managers don’t fully appreciate the sort of conflict to the business.

The HR Directors we work with know the damage that abrasive managers do. After all, they are often left picking up the pieces.

They often report difficulties, however, getting senior management to address the problem of abrasive managers. What stops senior management from intervening?

There are a number of factors (see image) but essentially they boil down to:

  • fear (of the abrasive manager leaving or causing trouble)
  • hope that the problem will somehow go away by itself
  • a failure to engage with the devastation that abrasive managers can cause
  • a lack of appreciation of the real (and measurable) cost of workplace conflict

We recognise these issues, and support our HR Director clients to explain the necessity of specialist abrasive leader coaching to senior management.

Have you experienced an abrasive manager going unchallenged during your working life? Often for years? What do you think the reasons for this were?