How to give honest feedback to an abrasive superior

By all accounts, Jack is a successful leader. He’s an industry trailblazer that others look to for his expertise. Financially, he is doing well and his business is thriving.

On the outside, Jack has many markers of success.

 What Jack doesn’t realize is how off-putting his behavior is to others.

 What is obvious to others in his “no-nonsense, say it the way it is approach” is being negatively perceived as condescending, belittling, and at times even offensive.

 The Turnaround

 Jack is mentoring one of his colleagues, Mary, by attending client meetings with her.

 Jack and Mary have worked together for years and have a good rapport. Jack sees her potential and views Mary as a rising star in the company. She appreciates his mentoring guidance and he enjoys helping her advance her career.

 After a week passed that Jack and Mary had met with one of her prospective clients, Jack asked when the follow-up meeting was.

 There was an awkward silence.

 “They want to meet with me alone next time. The client doesn’t want you to attend any more of our meetings” said Mary.

 “What do you mean they don’t want to me meet with them again? I’m there to help you and them.”

 Another pause.

 “Jack, I appreciate your interest in helping me. The client didn’t like your approach. They felt like you were speaking down to them and came across as know-it-all and weren’t really interested in what was best for them.”

 What it takes to give honest feedback to an abrasive superior

 As you can imagine, Mary was in a very difficult, risky situation when Jack asked her about the follow-up meeting with her prospective client. 

In a split second, she contemplated: 

  • Do I make an excuse about why the client doesn’t want to meet with Jack again?
  • Do I lie that they’ve chosen another vendor?
  • If I lie, what if Jack finds out, the client chose me?
  • Do I tell Jack the truth at the risk of him getting angry and damaging our work rapport?

 Mary chose her personal value of honesty, at the risk of how Jack would respond.

 She thought “If I ignore my values by lying or not being completely forthright with Jack, I would lose my internal credibility. Avoiding speaking honestly only postpones the truth eventually coming out and makes the situation worse.”

 To her surprise, and as difficult as this conversation was, Mary’s direct words said with respect and kindness was the beginning of Jack’s turnaround from abrasive to awareness.

 Mary’s conversation was the beginning of Jack becoming aware of the negative impact of his words and behavior on others.

Mary’s genuine concern in giving honest feedback about how Jack’s  style of communicating  was working against him, was the beginning of Jack turning around abrasive behavior. .

What made Jack receptive?

Jack told me:

“I knew deep down, Mary cares about me. We have a positive, collaborative work relationship. As hard as it was to hear, I trust Mary and respect what she says. It was the first time someone gave me the feedback of how I came across to others that I didn’t realize. It was humbling and the beginning of me becoming more aware of walking into someone else’s shoes and not always being right.”

Your take away

 Do you know someone in your work setting that is like Jack?

 A leader who is really competent and skilled high-performer yet who doesn’t realize how they treat people is condescending, belittling and offensive? 

 Start by showing you care about them as a person and being competent yourself.

 Leaders who exhibit abrasive behaviors are focused on results. They respect people who know what they’re doing and help them succeed.

It is risky to give honest feedback to a superior whose behavior is abrasive. It’s a decision only you can make that involves many considerations such as the timing, what to say, and being prepared for possible retaliation.

 If you follow the example of Mary and choose your personal value of honesty over comfort, your caring and honest words may be the beginning of a leader turning around abrasive behavior

Are you ready to address the abrasive leadership in your organization? Do you need guidance on how to approach this sensitive issue? Let’s have a more in-depth conversation about this. 

Remember, your voice could be the catalyst that initiates meaningful change. Let’s stand together for a more respectful and empathetic workplace. 

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.

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