How To Stand Up To An Abrasive Boss While Staying Level Headed And Respectful

Imagine having a boss who’s known for angry, emotional outbursts and knee-jerk reactions regardless of who’s around.

Now imagine, you’re in a meeting with your boss and peers discussing a project timeline. Each person plays a role in contributing to the project.  

Suddenly your boss starts yelling about the project being behind schedule and you become the target.

Your boss doesn’t have all the facts about the various aspects of the project and you feel a knot forming in your stomach and a flood of emotions prompting you to defend yourself. 

Your rational mind knows if you react impulsively the already tense situation will only get worse. 

Instead, you stay calm and level headed attempting to provide an explanation and suddenly you’re cut off in mid-sentence with questions from your boss (said in a condescending tone): 

  • Don’t you realize how far behind the project is?
  • How could you let this happen? 
  • Don’t you realize how important this is?

How do you stand up for yourself while staying level-headed, rational, and respectful?

For some who are reading this blog, you don’t have to imagine having an abrasive boss, you’re living it every day. 

In my experience of coaching abrasive leaders, they genuinely don’t realize how they come across. It’s not that they’re bad people. They lack self-awareness as to the negative image of their words and actions on those around them

Anything less than what they expect is perceived as a threat to their competence. In a split second, the abrasive leader defends against the threat by wrongly assuming you don’t care as much about competence as they do and label you as lazy, stupid, uncaring, or all three.

This isn’t an excuse or condoning of abrasive behavior. It’s reality.

It’s natural to defend yourself in the moment. While that’s certainly an option, if you choose to do that your boss is likely to perceive you more of a threat and you’re likely to be a target for further verbal attacks and even retaliation.

The below strategy is from my mentor, Laura Crawshaw. Laura is the founder of the Boss Whispering Institute. Her groundbreaking book Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to end unnecessary roughness in the workplace offers a roadmap on to stop being a hostage to an abrasive boss and toxic work environment.  

Warning: This strategy may seem counterintuitive to what your instincts tell you to do by confronting your abrasive boss in front of your colleagues. 

Instead, reassure your boss of your commitment to competence, both theirs and yours, privately.

Approach your boss after the meeting and follow this outline in what to say:  

  1. Describe the verbal attack in neutral terms 

“I want to clear up something that happend in today’s meeting. When I started to explain why my portion of the project is delayed, I was cut off and didn’t have a chance to finish.” 

  1. Acknowledge your boss’s concerns about the project delay

“I can see why you’re upset – I’d be bothered if I were in your shoes too (shows empathy). If I’d had a chance to finish my sentence, you would have heard that even though the project is delayed I have a commitment from the Die Shop to have what I need to finish my portion by noon tomorrow.”

  1. Reassure your boss of his/her competence

“I know getting things done right and on time is important to you. It’s important to me too.”

  1. Reassure your boss of your competence

“I want you to know I care as much about this project as you do. I’m here to make it happen and make us look good in the process.”

  1. Teach your boss ways to manage his or her anxiety without attacking

“If you sense that things aren’t going as planned, it would work a lot better to hang in there to talk about it instead of cutting me off. That’s all I wanted to say. Thanks for meeting with me.”

Remember standing up to an abrasive boss is risky because most likely you will be perceived as a threat. 

Taking a private, calm, and collegial approach to easing your boss’s anxiety about getting a project done on time is just one strategy. Most likely, it will take several conversations like this as well as other approaches.  

The key to standing up for yourself is to be level-headed, rational, and respectful in whatever approach you choose so you avoid any chance of being misperceived as a whiner or difficult, and setting yourself up for further attack. 

Schedule a strategy call to learn more approaches so you stand up for yourself while staying level-headed, rational, and respectful.


PS Ultimately it’s the manager’s responsibility of abrasive leade to address abrasive behavior and hold leaders accountable to treat employees respectfully.  If you’re a manager, read 5 Keys to Guide Your Abrasive Top Performer to Positive Transformation to protect your organizational health.

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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