Dealing with abrasive managers

A commentary on Laura Crawshaw's work with abrasive managers, published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 72, October 2012, pp. 13-14

Brian Martin

Many whistleblowers know all about bullying at work - because they are prime targets. Bullying can serve as a form of reprisal. Most commonly it is by bosses; sometimes co-workers join in. When a group is involved in bullying, it is called mobbing. Occasionally, mobbing is by subordinates against a boss.

Common methods include abusive language, persistent denigration of work performance, put-downs in front of others, petty harassment (such as blocking simple requests), assignment to trivial duties or to onerous ones, and referrals to psychiatrists.

Whistleblowers aren't the only targets. Others are bullied because they are rivals, members of a minority group or convenient scapegoats, among many other reasons. Bullying is important for all workers, but especially so for whistleblowers.

Bullied workers suffer incredibly. Their morale nosedives. Some quit; others go on leave for stress. So what do researchers and advisers say to do? The prognosis is not good.

One option is to put up with the abuse. This makes life a continuing misery, sometimes with dire consequences for health and personal life. Reasoning with the perpetrator seldom succeeds; fighting back often leads to increased harassment. Many advisers therefore suggest leaving, because one's health and mental well-being are more important than any job.

If the workplace is so dysfunctional that workers are quaking in their boots, underperforming, resigning and taking leave for stress, you'd think that higher management would want to do something about it. They know about the problem because many bullied workers make complaints to their boss's boss or a human resources unit. This hardly ever fixes the problem. Whistleblowers know this only too well: many of them report their concerns to bosses, upper management or watchdog agencies, with abysmal results.

For this reason, I am sceptical about the value of anti-bullying policies. They rely on a set of formal processes and don't address the source of the problem. I've even seen the formal processes used against the targets of bullying.

Recently I became aware of an entirely different approach to the problem of workplace bullying, by a US management consultant named Laura Crawshaw. She is called in by senior managers to work with bosses who are causing havoc among their employees through their rough behaviours. She doesn't like the term "bully," instead calling these bosses "abrasive."

She notes that nearly all the writing on workplace bullying focuses on the targets, the ones suffering abuse. Those designated as bullies are typically seen as uncaring, insensitive, scheming and sometimes malevolent figures who delight in making the lives of their subordinates a living hell. However, after working with many abrasive bosses, she came up with an entirely different assessment. She says they are not intentionally hurting anyone. Indeed, they are usually oblivious to the harm they are causing.

This perspective resonated with me. I had read an important book by psychologist Roy Baumeister titled Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. Baumeister examined some of the very worst human behaviours, including murder, torture, terrorism and genocide. He found that few perpetrators fit the Hollywood stereotype of malicious, sadistic villains. Instead, most of them feel justified in their actions, believe they had little choice, and wonder why others are making such a fuss. Their victims, on the other hand, suffer enormously, and seldom can comprehend that their tormenters do not treat the events as equally serious.

Crawshaw has worked with hundreds of abrasive bosses and says she has encountered only two who fit the description of a psychopath, a person with no conscience who delights in hurting others. These exceptions aside, abrasive bosses are not out to get people at all.

This may be hard to believe. After all, when you've been at the receiving end of abuse, the usual assumption is that the other person intended to cause hurt. Crawshaw's perspective is so different that it may require some time to absorb. I'm going to outline some of her key insights, but wouldn't expect you to accept them without question. If these issues affect you personally, it is worth getting her publications (see below) and going through them slowly and carefully. If it helps you - or someone you know - to survive in the workplace, it will be worth it.

Here's the key, and it may be a surprise: abrasive bosses seek, above all, to be perceived as competent. When they think subordinates are performing below par - correctly or otherwise - they experience this as a threat to their competence, which requires top performance from the entire unit. In the face of this threat to their very survival - for they see their career as dependent on being competent - they will act against those letting down the team.

This is the hard part to grasp: when bosses are abusive, over-controlling and undermining, it might seem personal to you but to the abrasive boss it's all about their own survival, which depends on their perceptions of competence.

For comparison purposes, Crawshaw describes how an adequate boss deals with the perceived poor performance of a subordinate. This sort of boss doesn't assume the employee is incompetent, but rather investigates to find out what's going on. Perhaps there's a need for better communication, guidance, training or support.

However, an abrasive boss treats perceived incompetence as actual incompetence, and acts against it. "They don't see any need to read and accurately understand why their coworkers perform below standards because they already know : incompetence stems from laziness, stupidity, or defiance." Crawshaw says abrasive bosses never learned the skill of empathy.

But, you might say, surely an abrasive boss must realise how damaging their behaviours are, indeed how counterproductive. But just because you can recognise the damage doesn't mean they can. Crawshaw says abrasive bosses are "blinder than bats." So they continue their methods oblivious to the consequences.

This is where Crawshaw, a "Boss Whisperer," comes in. Top management has recognised the problem and called her in to help the abrasive boss change, just as a horse whisperer tames a wild horse. Crawshaw describes how she learned techniques for getting through to abrasive bosses. For example, she learned that telling these bosses that their behaviours are damaging was not effective, because they disputed every claim. Instead, she tells them that employees perceive them as abrasive, because damaged feelings cannot be so easily disputed. She also tells how she deals with the defences put up by abrasive bosses, giving lots of sample conversations.

What induces these bosses to change? They have been put on notice by top management: change or else. Their organisational survival is at stake. Some abrasive bosses can change, but some can't, and they might have to be moved or released - put out to pasture.

But there's a prior problem, before a boss whisperer is brought onto the scene. Top managers seldom want to do anything about the problem boss. Crawshaw says they are afraid of the abrasive boss. After all, who wants to deal with someone who is abusive and uncomprehending? Top managers are also afraid that intervening will damage the good outcomes from the unit. So they sit on their hands and let the damage continue. Some abrasive bosses leave a trail of tears - with talented employees leaving or performing sub-par - and yet no one raises a finger to stem the damage.

If top management won't act, who will? Subordinates? Crawshaw devotes a chapter to strategies for subordinates and co-workers of abrasive bosses. They can use the soothe strategy, the reverse threat display, or one of several ways to induce upper management to intervene.

The message from Crawshaw's work is to see abrasive bosses as seeking high performance but lacking the empathy and people skills to achieve their goals in a humane way. They genuinely do not understand the harmful impact of their behaviours, and therefore need to learn new skills. However, because their patterns of behaviour have been refined over a lifetime, change is only likely if the only other option is organisational extinction.

Abrasive bosses are pretty set in their ways, higher level managers seldom want to intervene and subordinates usually just think of themselves - and that means coping or leaving, not trying to fix the problem. However, when top managers call in a Boss Whisperer like Crawshaw and see bosses change their styles, they can become committed to behavioural change.

Crawshaw's book Taming the Abrasive Manager treats a serious issue, yet is highly engaging to read, being both chatty and logical, with examples used to illustrate practical strategies. So why isn't her work more widely known? I would say it's because her basic premise - that abrasive managers do not intend harm but lack insight and skills - clashes so strongly with prevailing ideas.

Speaking out about problems at work is a prime trigger for bullying. The lesson from Crawshaw's work is to set aside the idea that those who initiate reprisals are consciously malevolent. Actually, they think they are doing the right thing: they feel justified in their actions. To be effective in responding to unfair treatment, it pays to understand the psychology of those who take these damaging actions.

Further reading

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

Laura Crawshaw, "Coaching abrasive leaders: using action research to reduce suffering and increase productivity in organizations," International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, Issue 29, 8(1), pp. 60-77

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