(By Deborah L. Jacobs)
“From past experience, abrasive leaders have learned to survive by deploying these unacceptable behaviors and will defend against any threats to the way they are accustomed to achieving success. They may be shocked to find out that they are hurting the people around them, and surprisingly willing to change. I see this all the time in my work as an executive coach.“
Many of us watched in horror as Mike Rice, the disgraced former basketball coach for Rutgers University, hurled basketballs and homophobic slurs at his players.
An independent lawyers’ report prepared for the university and released last week showed Rice had a pattern of being an abrasive leader. Yet he moved to ever more prestigious schools. That’s because, surprising as it may sound, athletic departments—and society—embrace these personalities.
Abrasive leaders see that their behavior works, to help them win records, high share prices and promotions. So they have no incentive to change. People say things like, “Yeah, he’s tough on his people, but look what he’s achieved. They’re just complaining because they don’t want to work as hard as he does.”
Understanding the abusive boss is the first way to make sure he or she doesn’t ruin your life.
Contrary to popular misconception, abrasive leaders are not necessarily bad people. They are simply hard-wired to misinterpret normal reactions from others as immediate threats to their existence. This blinds them to how their behavior impacts their staff.
To some extent we all defend ourselves when threatened. But abrasive leaders are especially sensitive to anything that challenges to their position, success, self-perception, authority or need to please. Therefore, they tend to overreact.
From past experience, abrasive leaders have learned to survive by deploying these unacceptable behaviors and will defend against any threats to the way they are accustomed to achieving success. They may be shocked to find out that they are hurting the people around them, and surprisingly willing to change. I see this all the time in my work as an executive coach.
Sure, some abusive bosses are better suited to therapy and coaching. But more often they will cooperate with a neutral third-party to change the workplace dynamic.
We start by speaking with the individual’s manager; co-workers; staff; clients and sometimes even a spouse or family members, asking this question: “What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of Joe’s management style and the way he interacts with others?”
It’s important that the respondents feel safe to share information freely and confidentially. Based on this feedback and personality assessments of the abrasive leader, it’s possible to identify themes and patterns about the abusive behavior.
Typically, abrasive leaders are immediately taken aback when they read the edited comments of the people closest to them. They have engaged in tunnel-vision for so long that they are stunned at how others perceive them. Often, this shocks them into a willingness to change. Turns out they didn’t mean to harm anyone in reaching their goals – whether it is to be the coach who won the national championship or the business executive who becomes the CEO. When confronted with the facts, abrasive leaders are open to coaching that will help to reshape their behavior.
Abrasive leaders often think there is a monster under the bed ready to strike them at any minute. Shining a light on their behavior helps them understand that the monster is simply a figment of their imagination. When the illusion is shattered, abrasive leaders can become star performers, without subjecting others to their tirades and physical abuse.
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”