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Dealing with abrasive personalities

Typically when we think of abrasive personalities we are talking about aggressive people who seem to have no filter on either what they say or how they say it. In some cases the abrasive person might be a no-nonsense straight-shooter who is perceived as abrasive but is actually constructive in an overly passive work environment.

Let’s deal with both possibilities. It is most likely that you are dealing with a person who is aggressive and the way he or she communicates comes across as harsh and confrontational. Often when I coach these people they either lack the self-awareness of their behavior or they are self-aware and don’t care. In fact they may even be proud of the fact that they are direct and think others should be too.

Keep in mind that the majority of the north american population tends to be overly passive (from the research I conduct in my training classes, approximately 60% of people skew more passive). That makes an aggressive or abrasive person stick out even more.

The strategy you use with the abrasive person likely depends on your relationship to them. In every case, the only effective approach to correct or change the behavior is to be direct and have the conversation in private. Indirect methods, hinting and soft approaches will be ineffective and might even increase the person’s abrasiveness. In most cases you will have the discussion one-on-one and in some situations you might choose to have someone from human resources involved (more so with an employee who you suspect will twist the conversation against you.) Involving HR will tend to escalate the situation so choose that approach strategically.

If the abrasive person is an employee who reports to you, then you will find it easier to confront the situation than if the person is your peer or manager. You will point out your concern about your employee’s approach, the desired behavior and the consequences of continuing with their abrasive style. If the abrasive person is your peer you will share how his or her behavior impacts you and request that it stop. If the person is your manager you will take a similar approach as talking with a peer – point out the conduct, the impact it has on you and request that it stop.

It isn’t unusual for an abrasive person to try and turn the tables on you – claim that you are being overly sensitive and that the problem is you, not them. Don’t overly concern yourself with their initial reaction to the feedback as it is simply defensiveness. Most people get defensive when they receive corrective feedback. Instead of reacting to their defensiveness, simply repeat your perspective. Even if the initial reaction is defensive you will likely see a change in behavior – at least towards you. If it doesn’t change then you will likely need to consult with human resources or choose to live with the behavior. As with any positive behavior change, you should privately acknowledge the person’s changed behavior and approach.

We help supervisors, lead hands and managers deal with defensive employees and peers in our Front Line Leadership program.

Now let me deal with the other possibility – that the individual is a straight shooter but works in a very passive work environment.

Think of Aggressive/Abrasive behavior as a continuum. At the extreme far end is a sociopathic narcissist. At the other end is passive/wimpiness.

Very few of my coaching clients is ABSOLUTELY abrasive or aggressive. But they may be RELATIVELY abrasive compared with the culture of the organization they work in.

In many cases, they were specifically recruited to turn around situations, departments or divisions that were off track. Initially their tenacity for solving problems pays large dividends. Unfortunately their style can really irritate other people and after the big problems are solved, people focus less on the results and more on the behavior.

In fact when we measure the thinking and behaviour of these abrasive managers we sometimes discover that they are very constructive individuals operating in a very passive culture. Because the abrasive manager is task focused, he or she can be insensitive to the impact they have on people.

Instead of vilifying these aggressive managers, perhaps the organization needs to look in the mirror to see if the overall culture is too passive. By working together, the organization can benefit from being more results-focused and the aggressive manager can shift to being more people sensitive.

Conflict in itself is not bad. It is essential for effectiveness in organizations and relationships. Managing the conflict constructively is the best way to get maximum benefit from the aggressive manager while minimizing collateral damage to the organization.

Be sure to let us know how we can be of help – either through coaching or with our Front Line Leadership program. Or contact us to discuss your situation further.

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