Written by Julie Sharp, FEI Account Manager

The fear … struck into their hearts was too deep to be dislodged …There were those … who understood this. They could see into the creature’s soul and soothe the wounds they found there … For secrets uttered softly into … troubled ears, these … were known as Whisperers.”
– Nicholas Evans, The Horse Whisperer

In her book Taming The Abrasive Manager: How To End Unnecessary Roughness In The Workplace, Dr. Laura Crawshaw—also known as the “Boss Whisperer”—relates the story of a client, a CEO, who claimed to be mystified by the silence of his management team when asked for feedback. The CEO could think of only two possible reasons why his team did not speak up: they were “either lazy or stupid.”

This is an example of what Crawshaw calls an abrasive boss. Abrasive bosses “rub people the wrong way.” They have low emotional intelligence and an aggressive interpersonal style that hurts people, destroys trust, disrupts the workplace and impacts a company’s bottom line. They may resort to threats, public humiliation, condescension and overreaction to get “results.” On the contrary, Crawshaw’s research shows that workers with abrasive bosses report decreases in performance, work quality, effort, time at work and commitment to the organization.

What can an organization do about abrasive bosses? After all, senior leadership may have their own fears about how people react to them, or even to the organization itself. (Sometimes it is senior leadership that is abrasive!)

Crawshaw has developed a specialized coaching process intended to turn abrasive bosses into “adequate leaders” and create a safer, more resilient workplace for everyone. Here are some fast facts:

  • Popular literature typically characterizes abrasive bosses as emotionally ill people intentionally wreaking havoc on their staff, but research has shown most abrasive bosses lack insight into the impact of their actions on others and are “clueless.”
  • Crawshaw’s process involves an intervention model similar to that used in substance abuse, where the abrasive boss is made to feel the emotional impact of their behavior, understands the consequences for not changing and is offered support in learning how to change.
  • The TAD concept (Threat, Anxiety and Defense) is used as a conceptual framework for understanding why people on both sides react as they do and how the threat can be reduced.
  • To overcome defensive responses, facts are not up for discussion, but feelings—or perceptions—are presented as facts, i.e. “John, the fact is that I don’t know and cannot know exactly what happened because I wasn’t there. But I do know one fact: your people felt they were treated disrespectfully” (Taming, p. 134).

If you are dealing with a situation with an abrasive boss, your account manager can help. Also, check out Dr. Crawshaw’s book, website and free articles Coaching Abrasive Leaders and Winners Who Become Losers for more information.