Abrasive leaders or managers are those whose interpersonal behavior causes emotional upset and distress in peers and direct reports. This behavior can range from occasional interpersonal problems to chronic bullying or harassment.

And the impact of these abrasive leaders goes well beyond the one-on-one interpersonal relationship they have with an individual. Research suggests that the impact of this behavior is profound and has a powerful influence on the functioning of individuals around the abrasive person as well as the functioning of the organization itself.

Research has indicated that the implications of abrasive leadership includes:

  • negative and stressful work environments
  • lowered morale and job satisfaction
  • occupational stress responses by individuals resulting in lowered performance
  • workplace conflict as a result of retaliatory behavior
  • greater stress-related illness in employees
  • the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • attrition of valued employees
  • team dysfunction
  • union – employer conflict
  • legal actions

You can only imagine the financial implications of these problems in a workplace.

Often the trouble with managing the abrasive person in the workplace is that they can be a very productive member of the staff. Not only is it hard to confront these leaders with their behaviour but they hold positions of power and can be downright scary. Most of us avoid abrasive and aggressive individuals just as a simple protective strategy, and, in an organization, confronting an abrasive or aggressive leader can mean a risk of your job.

Typically when people feel threatened they either protect themselves by avoiding or they become aggressive themselves in order to fend off the attack. Unfortunately, this approach leads to more problems than solutions.

Managing these individuals with a three pronged approach can be helpful. First, ensure that the organization has strong policies in place that go beyond legislation to protect against harassment to include policies about the way people are treated in the organization. Second, use someone in the organization who is relatively independent, such as a senior Human Resource professional, to confront the abrasive leader with their behaviour. And, third, use an external consultant to provide (i) a good assessment of the situation for the organization, (ii) high quality and direct feedback to the abrasive leader, and (iii) coaching for the individual to learn how to change their behaviour.