It’s time to address abrasive behavior: 5 Steps to motivate abrasive leaders to change

Are you on the verge of losing valued employees because of a top-performing leader’s abrasive behavior?  

If so, perhaps you’ve heard the following type of complaints from employees as they head for the door:  

TEAM MEMBER A tells you she’s leaving because of repeatedly being yelled at in front of co-workers. 

She says “When I ask questions to get clarification about a project, I’m spoken to in a condescending tone like I’m stupid for asking questions. I don’t want to work in a place where I constantly feel on edge never knowing when the next tirade from my boss will come.” ⁠

⁠TEAM MEMBER B Hands in his resignation after working through yet another weekend to meet the constant demands of his boss only be to yelled at on Monday for making a minor mistake. 

The exhausted employee says to you “There’s no appreciation for going the extra mile, just more unrealistic demands with no end in sight.”⁠

TEAM MEMBER C is threatening a lawsuit for inappropriate comments the leader makes about certain employees’ ethnicity. 

He says “This leader is clueless about the things he says that are offensive to employees. On top of that, it’s clear he has favorites to those who closer to him in age when he excludes members of the team from input on projects they are working on.” ⁠

What all of these employee complaints have in common are examples of abrasive behaviors from their boss that are causing emotional distress.  Because of how these employees are being treated, their morale, motivation, and productivity has tanked.

And now all eyes are on you to do the magic act of pulling the bunny out of the hat to address the source of the complaints, the abrasive leader.

Yet what makes talking with the abrasive leader so difficult is they genuinely lack awareness of how their words and actions impact those around them.

Abrasive leaders are often well-intended and lack self-awareness

Believe it or not (and while it may not seem like it) abrasive leaders are often well-intended. Their goal is to be a top-performer and get results.

Unfortunately because they don’t see the impact of their behavior or see themselves as abrasive, what it takes to turn the behavior around is being motivated to change.

From our research at the Boss Whispering Institute®, the motivation has to come from above for the abrasive leader to change their management style.

If you are an HR professional and/or executive leader, implement the following 5 key steps to motivate your abrasive top-performing leader to change.

1. Intervene Early, Clearly, and Firmly

To intervene effectively, present your concerns to the individual and be prepared to respond to their defensive reactions calmly, confidently, and firmly.

“{Leader name}, you’ve been with the company for many years and I’ve always been impressed by your expertise.  I want to have a conversation about your behavior lately and areas to improve.”

2. Describe the Negative Perceptions with Specifics

“I observed you yelling during this week’s staff meeting. Lately, I’ve noticed you seem more on edge and it shows up in you being more abrupt and sharp in your tone.  When you treat people disrespectfully, it’s impacting how you’re perceived and people not wanting to work with you.”  

3. Set Limits and Expect Pushback

“Starting today, I want you to treat people with respect. From your tone of voice to managing your anger and patience when people ask questions you think they should know the answer to.   

Note: Most likely, the leader will rationalize their behavior or blame someone else for making a “stupid mistake.” Don’t take the bait, move on to step four.

4. Clearly Convey the Expectation for Improvement

“This behavior can’t go on. It’s not okay to treat our employees disrespectfully. If things don’t improve, we’ll be looking at other options.”

5. Monitor for Change

“We’ll meet again next week, same time  to see how things are going.”

Some managers believe since they addressed the problem, the issue is over.  

To the contrary. It’s crucial to schedule a follow up meeting so the leader knows his/her behavior will be monitored and held accountable for making improvement.

Take Action Sooner Vs. Later

As an Accredited Boss Whisperer®, I’ve found that leaders often avoid addressing abrasive behavior for a variety of reasons. For example, they’re afraid of losing the leader’s industry expertise, and/or client base of long-time employees, and/or they don’t know what to say.

If you can relate, consider the following research on the psychological impact on employees and financial costs associated with ignoring abrasive behavior.

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort
  • 47% intentionally decreased their time at work
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work
  • 63% said their performance declined
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined
  • 12% left their job because of the experience

There is hope that when you intervene, abrasive behavior can be turned around. The leader can improve. Your other employees will thank you.

As an HR professional or executive leader, if you believe that those higher in your organization may be reluctant to intervene with abrasive behavior, contact me to learn strategies to overcome the resistance. 

When you do, your employees will thank you.

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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