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How Can She Get Away With That?! Understanding Abrasive Behaviors in the Workplace

shockedLast week, I was sharing with some friends my new internship with the Texas Conflict Coach®. I related ideas I had learned while reading Dr. Laura Crawshaw’s book Taming the Abrasive Manager (2007) and other articles on toxic workplace behavior. Dr. Crawshaw, aka “The Boss Whisperer®” is an experienced executive coach who has developed a method for understanding and managing abrasive workplace behavior using empathy and insight. Those familiar with “horse whispering” understand that taming abrasive managers and horses requires patience, firmness, and quiet confidence.

Like many people, my friends had numerous stories of unruly bosses. Their examples mirrored Dr. Crawshaw’s definitions of irritating and abrasive conduct. These behaviors range from simply annoying—talking too much or too loud, telling too many jokes, not listening to other opinions; to abrasive “behaviors characterized by aggression, [that] damages work relationships to the point of disrupting organizational functioning.” As we talked, three questions came up in each conversation.

  1. How can she get away with that kind of behavior and keep her job?
  1. Why is my abrasive boss so clueless about how he affects us?
  1. Why does Ms. X yell at everyone except Tom? What is Tom’s secret?

Let’s explore each of these questions:

  1. How can she get away with that kind of behavior and keep her job?

Leaders who display abrasive behaviors keep their jobs despite damaging interpersonal skills because they are good at what they do. They are highly skilled top performers, who boost the company’s bottom line. According to John Ford of the HR Mediation Academy, many HR Managers do not catch the subtle signs of emotional distress from employees such as, expressions of anger, fear, tension, guilt, jealousy, shame and contempt until the emotions turn into negative behaviors and formal complaints and grievances are filed. Lack of action does not imply leaders condone bad behavior. Many senior executives and HR directors do not know how to address these behaviors. Ford notes that many HR professionals do not have formal training in dispute resolution and mediation, so their toolbox to deal with workplace abrasion may be limited.

  1. Why is my abrasive boss so clueless about how he affects us?

While these leaders have the technical competency, they are blind to the impact they have on other people. According to Dr. Crawshaw (2007), “they have little or no ability to detect other’s emotions.” If a manager does see some impact, they are ignorant to the severity of pain they cause. One of my friends, in talking about his abrasive boss, described him as “clueless.” His boss really had no idea the damage he was doing to individuals. How can they not see? Dr. Crawshaw (2007) points out that these individuals never developed “social sonar” during their formative childhood years.

  1. Why do abrasive managers behave appropriately with some employees and not others?

My friend Tom mentioned that his boss yells at everyone except him. I asked why he thought this was so. Tom said, “The first time Ms. X started yelling at me, I held up my hand and said, ‘Nuh Uh—you are not doing this.’ Essentially, Tom set his own boundaries. Dr. Crawshaw describes this method as “The Reverse Threat Display.” Crawshaw also outlines a “Soothe Strategy” that empathizes with the boss’s need for competency. Many leaders who exhibit this abrasive behavior are high achievers. Proficiency is extremely important to them. They tend to act out of fear and anger if they perceive a deficiency in themselves and their direct reports and even peers. People on the receiving end of harsh treatment, can reassure the boss that they are committed to high standards, and suggest another way to communicate without attacking.

If you or someone you know is dealing with abrasive behaviors, there is help! Check out this archived podcast with Dr. Laura Crawshaw, The Boss Whisperer® and our recent podcast with Sharone Bar- David on managing workplace incivility. We’d love to hear your strategies in successfully managing abrasive behaviors in the workplace.


Wendy Mayfield

Graduate Student intern

Southern Methodist University Master’s Program Dispute Resolution & Conflict Management

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