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Abrasive leaders can be enormously destructive. They can be emotionally volatile, overly controlling, intimidating and guilty of sexual, racial or otherwise inappropriate behaviour. It’s up to other leaders to deal with the problem, but too often they don’t.

“Do you suffer from spinal paralysis when it comes to managing an abrasive leader?” asks Portland, Ore. psychotherapist Laura Crawshaw.

The answer is probably yes.

You may be unsure that the behaviour requires intervention. Or you may worry the individual will go after you and file a complaint. You may wrongly think you can only act if you have witnessed the bad behaviour. Or you may be waiting for another employee to officially complain. While you wait, however, Ms. Crawshaw notes your employees may have decided you are spineless or, worse, that you actually condone the behaviour.

Even if you grow your spine – to use a favourite phrase of hers – you are probably uncertain what to do as well as untrained in handling such unacceptable conduct. The standard approach with poor performance is to document the problem and tell the employee to improve. “It’s accurate advice, but not particularly helpful, because abrasive leaders see no need to change and even if they do, they know no better way to achieve their objectives,” she writes in Grow Your Spine & Manage Abrasive Leadership Behavior.

Many people view abrasive leaders as evil. But having coached more than 500 abrasive leaders, only twice has she encountered leaders she considered psychopaths. Generally they don’t suffer from personality disorders, but are simply afraid of being perceived as incompetent.

When adequate leaders encounter a problem, they explore the root causes and then work toward a solution with calm efficiency. Ms. Crawshaw says abrasive leaders see the situation as a threat they must defend against or else it will expose their incompetence. They instantly diagnose the problem as employee laziness, stupidity or uselessness, and attack the problem – that is, the employee – with aggression.

She stresses they usually aren’t bullies, intending to harm. They are just wrapped up in defending their ego and position, and don’t see their impact on others. They are often high in cognitive and technical intelligence but woeful on emotional intelligence.

Running through this workplace ordeal is fear. “Abrasive leaders are afraid of being perceived to be incompetent. Employees are afraid of being harmed. Managers are afraid of being accused of being punitive or unfair. Somebody has to summon up the courage to overcome these paralyzing fears and start managing conduct,” she writes.

You can take up that challenge even if you haven’t personally seen the abrasive behaviour. You have heard complaints from others in the workplace and need to treat those negative perceptions as evidence of the individual’s negative impact. If challenged by the offender that the complaints are untrue, she says you should respond “the fact is I don’t know and cannot know exactly what happened – I wasn’t there when the incident occurred. But I do know one thing for a fact: Your coworkers perceive they are being treated disrespectfully, and these negative perceptions cannot continue.” In certain situations you might go further: “The fact is employees feel threatened by you and tell me they are afraid of you.”

When meeting with the abrasive leader, describe the negative perceptions they have created as precisely as possible without breaching confidentiality. You can indicate what you have seen and what you have heard from others. Describe the impact – people feeling disrespected or intimidated, for example.

Then state the limits and consequences for continued negative perceptions. Be crisp and clear: “This cannot go on – these negative perceptions cannot continue. If they do continue, I will have to….” Know how you will end that sentence, the consequences you can and will impose.

Then offer help. For mild cases, offer internal mentoring by you or another skilled manager. For moderate to severe cases, propose confidential coaching specifically designed for leaders in such a situation. “Make it clear that acceptance of the offered help is voluntary, but the cessation of negative perceptions is mandatory,” Ms. Crawshaw says.

You may want to give the individual some time to consider such assistance because your confrontation may have stunned them. Stress that you don’t need to know what they talk about with the coach; you just need to see improved behaviour. As well, indicate that they can also get help independently if they prefer and whatever they do with respect to coaching won’t come into play in evaluating them. All that matters is changing behaviour.

Make sure as well to warn them against retaliating. Ms. Crawshaw offers these words: “I strongly advise you not to go back and ask people if they spoke with me or HR about their concerns, as that could be perceived as retaliation, adding to the negative perceptions about you.”

Follow up, meeting with the person at least monthly to give support and feedback, indicating you care. If the individual improves, recognize that progress. If not, follow through on the consequences you outlined. Grow your spine.


  • Confident companies do less, says former Rotman School of Management dean Roger Martin. They are confident in the things at which they are excellent and stick to it, rather than searching for other things at which there is no indication they will be particularly good.
  • One of the most effective tactics Steve Jobs used to instill confidence in Apple products was to emphasize the amount of work and effort he put into their development, notes marketer Phill Agnew. People tend to value the end product more when they hear the labour that went into it, a psychological principle known as the labour illusion effect.
  • When people in your organization complain, it opens the door to honesty and transparency and can kick-start innovation, argues consultant and chief executive officer Skip Prichard. He suggests you encourage your team to complain “like they’re playing chess, not checkers. Each complaint should come with an aim, not just to let off steam like an over-pressured teapot.”

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated Skip Prichard is a former chief executive officer. In fact, he is currently CEO of OCLC.

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