Nov 27 2007

Taming an Abrasive Boss

It's possible to tame an unruly boss.

“It only hurts when I work” aptly describes the pain experienced by those who work under, over or with an abrasive manager. Abrasive bosses rub people the wrong way, alienating co-workers (and often clients) with aggressive behaviors. They can be overly controlling, condescending, critical or threatening, overreacting to the slightest suggestion of incompetence in others.

In your work as IT professionals — whether help desk, network administration or management — chances are you’ve encountered abrasive internal customers who have attempted to “boss” you around, riding roughshod over your efforts to provide superior service. As is true for the horse whisperer who calms unmanageable horses, taming bosses requires understanding what drives their behavior.

Contrary to popular myth, the vast majority of abrasive bosses aren’t evil or crazy; they don’t wake up each morning plotting how to torment their co-workers in the IT department. In fact, they’re afraid: They’re unconsciously afraid of being perceived as incompetent and will defend against any threat to their ability to succeed. In other words, you’ll pay if you get in their way.

It’s also important to understand that they are generally blind to the degree of pain they inflict — they lack the social sonar to detect their negative impact on others. Surprisingly, they view their aggression as an effective management tool, thinking, “You really have to ride people to get the job done.”

Where did they learn this management style? More often than not, they learned it from an earlier harsh family, school or work environment (including the military). To them, abrasive behavior is normal and acceptable.

Here are some recommendations for taming an abrasive boss:

  • Don’t take their disrespectful behavior personally. It has nothing to do with you — it stems from their continual fear of being perceived as incompetent.
  • Never, ever sink to their level of interaction and engage in anything less than professional conduct. A good barometer is to treat others with respect whether or not you respect them.
  • Because they’re blind to their behavior, your first step is to make them see what they do: “Rob, in the morning meeting, you raised your voice and called me stupid.”
  • Your next step is to make them care enough to want to change it. This requires three tasks:
    1. Set the limit: “I don’t like to be called names or yelled at. That behavior just doesn’t work with me.”
    2. Address their fears: “You need to know that I am totally committed to making this project a success.”
    3. Tell them how to interact with you: “If you have a problem, just let me know right away and I’ll do my best to solve it.”
  • If the abrasive person is your boss and confronting them directly doesn’t work, your next option is to take your concerns to a higher level. But don’t go in and angrily trash your boss — you’ll only end up looking like just another disgruntled employee. Speak calmly, list a few of your boss’s strengths (there must be some) and then voice your concerns: “John is an intelligent, committed individual, but when he gets frustrated, he calls us ‘idiots.’ Some people are thinking of quitting.”
  • If you manage an abrasive boss, understand that the situation is not hopeless. They can change once they’re made to see, and setting disciplinary consequences for their behavior is often what it takes to make them care enough to change.
  • Get them help. Consider referring the abrasive person to a skilled executive coach who can help with developing positive management strategies, or provide intensive in-house mentoring. 
Laura Crawshaw, Ph.D., is the author of Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to End Unnecessary Roughness in the Workplace. Crawshaw founded the Executive Insight Development Group, an executive coaching firm specializing in abrasive leaders and dysfunctional teams. She is a member of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations, the American Psychological Association, and the International Coach Federation.