Abrasive Leadership: The result of a “perfect storm”

Abrasive leaders, at any level, rub coworkers the wrong way. Their aggressive management styles generate interpersonal friction that erodes motivation, reduces creativity, and worse yet, causes distress in those around them. In today’s high-pressured environment, organizations cannot afford the costs of disruptions caused by abrasive leaders, including paralyzing productivity, workarounds, the loss of valued employees, and potential harassment litigation.

Sadly, many of us have had the unpleasant experience of working with such individuals. Often technically skilled or good at getting things done, they are promoted to the ranks of management, receiving praise for their accomplishments. Companies, despite proclamations that people are their number one asset, turn a blind eye to the abrasive pattern. Coworkers who complain about poor treatment are moved to another department, with the problem explained as a personality conflict. Organizations worry that without the technical brilliance or achievements of the abrasive leader, their financial performance would be diminished.

Unfortunately, without brakes on the pattern, the problem continues to grow. Employees disengage or leave. If there are too many abrasive managers, the organization gains a poor reputation as an employer. Eventually the negative impact is not only on coworkers and the organization, but on abrasive leaders as well. Unable to engage their teams, these dysfunctional managers push themselves even harder, often to the point where they can no longer perform effectively.

The good news is that with the right kind of conditions, abrasive leadership can be turned around.

In a study with executives formerly perceived to be abrasive, Harrison (2014) found that coaching successfully supported a shift in behavior. The phenomenological research examined lived experience of the leaders, illuminating the causes of the abrasive pattern from the perspective of the perceived aggressor, something largely missing in the extant literature. A systems lens was used, considering both individual factors and contextual elements.

Among the findings was that the phenomenon arose out of “a perfect storm”, where corporate culture and dispositional qualities had a role. Typically, the leader had received little orientation to the role of manager and therefore continued to engage in the behaviours that made them successful as an individual contributor. Feedback was often limited to performance on tasks, without attention to managerial conduct. The organization appeared to value results without concern for how they were achieved.

In terms of dispositional factors, the study found that the leaders tended to be highly reactive, responding with arrogance or criticism when under pressure. Intensely competitive and often perfectionistic, the managers had little tolerance for people slower to process ideas or get things done. Frustrated at the prospect of poor results, they had difficulty managing their emotional response.

At the same time, these leaders were often much beloved by customers. Passionate about delivering quality work, they attended to critical details and went above and beyond for stakeholders.

As this suggests, abrasive leadership is a complex issue, requiring a thoughtful approach that addresses both the individual and the system. In an upcoming Fielding webinar, Dr. Harrison will share some practical steps and strategies for coaching the abrasive leader that lead to positive outcomes benefitting all concerned.