You Can Lead A Horse To Water…

This is a four part series of blogs addressing the question “Can Abrasive Employees Really Change?”. Part I addressed the importance of the managers working through their own anxiety before intervening with the abrasive employee. Part II outlined key elements of a proven change process. Part III discussed accountability as both helping to sustain change and an act of caring. Today in the last blog of this series, we acknowledge the reality of the abrasive employee’s choice to change.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

The above saying applies to abrasive employees as much as it does to horses. As a business owner or senior leader in the organization you have the authority to implement consequences should the abrasive behavior continue, but you can’t make the employee change. Just like any other relationship, you cannot control other people’s behaviors, the choice is up to them.

Laura Crawshaw, author of the book Taming The Abrasive Manager: How to end unnecessary roughness in the workplace (2007) outlines four options of how abrasive bosses respond when confronted about the harmful impact of their behavior on the organization.

1. Unable to see the impact of their abrasive behavior and are not able to change.

2. Able to see the impact of their abrasive behavior however do not care enough to change.

3. Will see the impact of their abrasive behavior and will care enough to change.

4. Will see the impact of their abrasive behavior and try to change yet are not able to change.

When an employee is told the abrasive behavior is unacceptable and needs to stop, it is his choice as to how he responds. Ideally the employee will respond with option #3 above by making a concerted effort to turn around behaviors that have had a destructive impact on fellow employees. This outcome is the most positive and rewarding for the employee and organization. The employee is appreciative that the organization cared enough to address the problem behavior and invest in helping them make the necessary changes. It is a win-win for everyone, the employee retains his job, has a better rapport with fellow co-workers, and the organization functions with improved productivity and results.

A necessary ending should not usually come as a surprise, but be the last step of a lot of effort to help the person come around.

– Dr. Henry Cloud

How does management respond when abrasive behavior does not change?

Oftentimes managers are reluctant to confront an employee about their behavior because behavior isn’t as easy to measure as a quantitative measure of a job description. In addition, employees exhibiting abrasive behavior are often defensive and rationalize a harsh approach in order to motivate their staff. They excuse their behavior with statements such as “People need to develop a thick skin, this is how I was treated and look at where I am today”. The abrasive employee has a “get it done” mindset and fears appearing incompetent. Things may get done, at the cost of losing rapport and relationship with the rest of the team.

Despite the abrasive employee’s defensiveness, rationalization, and projection to other’s being at fault, unacceptable behavior needs to be addressed and stopped. Even if it means losing a talented employee who makes your organization lots of money, saying goodbye to this person will improve morale, productivity, and reduce turnover. Whether it is abrasive behavior or behavioral issues of any kind, if not addressed it will eventually affect your organization’s revenue and branding.

If the abrasive employee chooses not change after help has been offered, at least you know you did what you could. Unfortunately, many employers move towards termination before offering help and the abrasive behavior continues to the next employer negatively impacting more people.

What if the abrasive person is the CEO, Owner, also known as the head honcho?

If the abrasive person is the “top dog” and there is not a board of directors who are willing to enforce non-abrasive, professional conduct, sadly there is little that can be done. Employees then need to make a decision of whether to stay by weighing the impact on their own health and well-being.

To close this blog series, Can Abrasive Employees really Change? one of Michael Jackson’s songs “Man in the Mirror” addresses the essence of change. As you listen on You Tube, follow the chorus (below) that is a powerful reminder to look in the mirror, take responsibility for your actions, and make the necessary changes.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer

If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change

Make the Conscious Choice to make your work culture a better place by taking a look at yourself and then make a change

This is Part IV in a four part series of blogs “Can abrasive employees really change?”.


Crawshaw, L. (2007). Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to End Unncessary Roughness in the Workplace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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