Can Abrasive Employees Really Change?

When people inquire about my coaching program in working with employees to turn around abrasive behavior, I am often met with the question can people really change?  My answer is emphatically “yes” people can change, whether change actually occurs depends.

Angry business man screaming at employee in the office

Change is possible

“You can’t teach an old dog new trick” is a myth.  Brain science research has proven the brain’s ability to develop new cells and learn throughout one’s life span. Despite age, difficult life experiences, and past failures, people are capable of change.

Typically when someone talks with us about a behavior or habit that is bothersome, we are receptive to the feedback and willing to change.  The feedback may be hard to hear, but there is recognition that we all have blind spots to aspects of ourselves that rub other people the wrong way.  Even if there is an occasional reverting to old patterns, for the most part we improve and the relationship with the other person is stronger as a result.

What happens if the person is defensive and denies there is a problem?

Specifically, what if, as a leader you have talked to one of your managers about a problematic behavior such as the abrasive manner he treats his employees?  The manager responds defensively. He may even go so far as to blame other people and is not willing to consider he has a problem whatsoever.   What do you do next?

Where the rubber meets the road

This is where you as a leader have an important decision to make.

  • Do you agree with your manager that other people are the problem?
  • Do you second guess your own observations of the manager’s behavior and minimize the impact on your other employees?
  • Do you hope the behavior will get better over time?
  • Do you relocate the manager hoping things will be better with a different set of employees and in a different area of the organization?

Passage of time or geographical re-locations do not create change

As a manager, it is your responsibility to protect the mission of your organization, including the well-being of all of your employees.  Part of your role is to define acceptable performance and conduct for your employees and address employee behavior that disrupts the functioning of your organization.

The first aspect of whether abrasive employees change depends on your comfort and ability to address the problem for what it is – unacceptable.  As a person of authority in the organization, if you are not equipped to handle abrasive behaviors, seek guidance before you put a plan into action.  Once you have a plan in place, it is up to you to give a clear, direct message to the abrasive employee that the negative perceptions that other employees have of them needs to stop.  Even if the manager is defensive and blames others, keep your focus on fulfilling your responsibility to the organizational mission.

Awareness of your own anxiety about intervening

If the employee exhibiting abrasive behavior perceives in any way that there will be no consequence should the same behavior remain, he is likely to continue.  That is why before you speak with this employee it is imperative that you are aware of and work through your own anxiety.  Sadly I have spoken to many employees who are affected by an abrasive manager.  Employees who lost respect for upper management who knew about the problem and did nothing.

Make the Conscious Choice to work through your own anxiety before intervening with an abrasive employee.

This is the first in a four part series of blogs “Can abrasive employees really change?”.  Stayed tuned for more insight in addressing the essential components of helping managers and employees turnaround abrasive behavior.

About the author 

Bonnie Artman Fox, MS, LMFT works with executive leaders who want to gain self-awareness about the impact of their words and actions and up-level their interpersonal skills. 

Drawing from decades as a psychiatric nurse and licensed family therapist, Bonnie brings a unique perspective to equip executive leaders with the roadmap to emotional intelligence that brings teams together. 

Bonnie’s leadership Turnaround coaching program has an 82% success rate in guiding leaders to replace abrasive behavior with tact, empathy, and consideration of others. The end result is a happy, healthy, and profitable workplace…sooner vs. later.

Leave a Comment