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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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Mediation: A vital tool for HR Professionals

John FordConflict in the workplace is inevitable, but Toxic, difficult workplaces are not. Mediation is a tool that can help. And sadly, most HR professionals don’t know this. They think mediation is not for them, when in fact they are effectively mediating all the time. Come learn why mediation is vital for your career and also your workplace!


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Conflict in Cross Cultural Groups: Lessons to Prevent and Manage It

crossculturalclipartModern technology and various transportation options have allowed for the cooperation of people across the world. Specifically in today’s work environment, employees are now working internationally with many different individuals and in some cases these people differ in age, gender, race, language, culture or nationality. In the article, Cross Cultural Conflict Resolution in Teams, John Ford goes into detail about the difficulties of international teamwork and also offers some lessons to prevent and manage conflict in situations that require teamwork.

Ford states that conflict is a major contributor to failure in groups. It is important to be mindful of the fact that various cultures react to conflict in different ways. One example of these cultural differences is communication styles. Communication in a group can either be expressive or restrained. While some cultures might focus on eye contact and physical touch, others might be less interested in physical touch and dodge eye contact. Furthermore, communication differences in relationships and level of directness can be seen throughout many cultures. In some cultures it is important to be direct and get to the point. Individuals from this type of culture would probably be upset by people who dodge the relevant questions and instead focus on personal matters. In contrast, the people from the second culture, who prefer addressing personal matters first, might be offended by the directness or aggressiveness of the individuals from the first culture. That being said, in the second culture it could be the norm to create a relationship with peers before tackling a project.

Ford goes on to explain that varying communication styles are not the direct cause of conflict. Instead, conflict can arise when judgments are made due to the different styles. He uses an example of a team member who strongly and loudly expresses opinions on subjects. An individual from a less vocal culture may see this behavior as arrogant or even rude. On the other hand, the individual with the strong opinion might deem the timid team member untrustworthy because he or she is quiet and does not hold eye contact. Variances in communication styles are only one example of the many differences between cultures that could cause conflict.

When working with a diverse group of people, it is important to be patient and mindful of any differences. Ford provides seven lessons to help foster better teamwork between unique individuals. The first lesson he mentions involves knowing yourself and your own culture. It is important and valuable to understand yourself and your own culture so that you can compare other cultures more effectively. The second lesson states the importance of learning the culture of the other individuals. Since cultures are dynamic, it is nearly impossible to fully understand them without experiencing them first hand. However, studying a culture by reading literature or watching films can still help prepare you for cooperation. The third lesson is called “check your assumptions”. In this section, Ford stresses the dangers of assumptions. It is important to stay open-minded and seek different interpretations to situations. Inaccurate assumptions or false judgments often lead to negative stereotypes.

The next lesson suggests focusing on asking questions instead of assuming that you know and understand a foreign culture. Asking questions not only shows respect, but it can also prevent conflicts by providing clarification. In the next lesson Ford suggests simply listening as an important tool for conflict prevention. Listening can provide a lot of valuable information about a foreign culture. The sixth step encourages you to consider the platinum rule. While somewhat similar to the “golden rule”, the platinum rule says to treat your team members how they would like to be treated rather than how we would like to be treated. Ford’s final lesson is about the fact that culture is so diverse and spread out. Therefore, instead of learning specific strategies for cross cultural conflicts, it would be more beneficial for us to assume that all our conversations deal with different cultures. We can utilize the lessons provided by Ford in our own lives every day.


John Wagner

Student Intern

Salisbury University – Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution



Ford, John. “Cross Cultural Conflict Resolution in Teams.” Mediate.com. Oct. 2001. Web. 29 Mar. 2015.

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