Leadership and Staffing

Four Strategies to Deal with Abrasive Leaders

When you walk into the lab, you can feel the tension building. Even though you enjoy your work, interacting with your boss is affecting your overall job satisfaction. You are facing a dilemma: start looking for another job or endure the conflict.

Bonnie Artman Fox

Bonnie Artman Fox

The understandable reaction

When faced with bosses who are disrespectful and derogatory, it is not uncommon to feel a fight or flight response. In a split second, you react. You either defend yourself or flee to avoid a confrontation. Either reaction is understandable.

There is another way: work through it.

An important distinction: abrasive, not bully

The word bully implies the intent to cause harm. In working with leaders who have an overly aggressive management style, I’ve discovered they do not intend to cause harm. Even though behaviors such as over-reaction and public humiliation are highly disrespectful, when informed of the negative perceptions their staff have of them, the majority show remorse. The source of the abrasive behavior is the fear of appearing incompetent.

Four strategies you can implement to deal with abrasive leaders:

  1. Keep a calm composure—Showing any sense of fear or tentativeness will discredit you.
  2. Give the facts—Without specific, objective examples, the abrasive leader is likely to rationalize or make his problem seem like your problem. “When I asked about the rollout of the second phase of the project, I was yelled at for asking a question.”
  3. Focus on strengths, avoid judgments— Acknowledge the pressure they are under and ways you respect them. Give reassurance of their competence and skill in handling their responsibilities and that you want to help wherever you can.
  4. State a non-threatening request— Demonstrate ways you want to interact without being attacked. Privately and after tempers have calmed down, request to talk for a few minutes. Review what happened using the above three strategies and state your request. “When I asked about the rollout of the second phase, I needed more details to have items prepared for my department. I know you’ve got things handled and like you, I want to help make this project successful.”

Know your limits

Implementing the above strategies will start a shift in the way you view and interact with an abrasive leader. Most people are defensive when attention is brought to their blind spots and most abrasive leaders do not view themselves as abrasive.

If, after time and consistency, you do not see demonstrable change, the next step is bringing your concerns to management using the same approach. Even with management intervening, a professional program for abrasive leaders might be needed. If you do decide to leave the lab, leave knowing you did what you could to help the abrasive leader turn around. And secondly, you attempted to work through conflict and reduce workplace suffering. Both are courageous efforts to conflict management that inspires through encouragement instead of retaliation.

LABCAST: Be sure to attend Bonnie Artman Fox's Lab Manager Academy webinar, "Dealing with Abrasive Leaders" on Wednesday, March 4th, or afterward at www.labmanager.com/abrasiveleaders to watch the archived video