At a recent training I was attending, I met Barb, a COO who after learning about my coaching program for abrasive leader turnaround, without skipping a beat she said “I was an abrasive leader”. Intrigued by her humility and willingness to share so openly to someone she had just met, I asked if we could meet after the training to learn more about her turnaround. Without hesitation, she agreed.

The influence of upbringing

When we met after our initial meeting, I continued to be impressed with Barb’s self-awareness and desire to change. She shared significant events from her upbringing that had influenced how she developed an abrasive leadership style. She had keen awareness of the impact of being the oldest child in her family and being looked to as the one her mother relied upon to help care for her younger siblings. Her father was often absent from the family which left more responsibility on her to take charge and get things done for her siblings.

How did the change happen?

When I asked how she gained awareness of how her abrasive leadership style was impacting others, she said “three things – divorce, children, and hearing the truth”

 Divorce – “The end of my first marriage started my change process. When I remarried, I didn’t want another divorce”.

Children – “Having children made me realize I wanted to parent my children differently than how I was raised. I wanted my children to have a family they wanted to be with. Due to my parent’s relationship with each other, I wanted to be as different from my parents as possible.”

The truth – “A previous employee who I highly respected told me the truth. I was in a new role with a different company and wanted to hire him. His response was eye-opening. He said ‘it seems like you’ve changed, you used to be pretty brutal, but it doesn’t bother me’. With this feedback, I also went back to my previous business partner and other employees and apologized for how I treated them. I realized I had the choice to apply skills to act differently and I did. I didn’t want to be known as brutal”.

Between divorce, children, and hearing the negative perception of her leadership style, Barb had a wake-up call. These combined events spurred her on a mission to figure out how to be a different kind of person and still get things done. A combination of therapy, coaching, and her own personal work led to a transformation from abrasive to aware…from “brutal” to supportive.

Barb is still in a high profile position as a COO, but her leadership style can no longer be defined as brutal. She is still a go-getter, competitive, and productive, but now the way she gets things done is through respect and civility.

What motivates change?

In my work as a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and coach to leaders exhibiting abrasive behavior, I have observed three key motivators to behavioral change. While people change for various reasons, the following events are powerful motivators:

3 Key Motivators to Change

  1. Losing (or the threat of losing) something or someone significant to the person.
  2. Hearing negative perceptions about their behavior from people they regard and respect.
  3. Developing insights and interpersonal skills to make behavioral change.

Barb experienced all three of these events that drove her change. Her story is the epitome of how behavioral change can happen when those around them have the courage to speak the truth with compassion and the receiver has the willingness to do the internal work necessary for lasting change.

We never know how people are going to respond when constructive feedback is offered. It is risky to confront abrasive co-workers and especially bosses. Intervening requires careful consideration of multiple factors before you proceed. Whether you choose to speak up or not to an abrasive person, start with remembering the above three key motivators to change and be certain that your intent is for good, not to harm.

Make the conscious choice to see beyond abrasive behavior to the hurt within and know change is possible