Taming Abrasive Managers

Workers can't handle abrasive bosses because they're afraid of getting gored -- psychologically and professionally, according to this excerpt from Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to End Unnecessary Roughness in the Workplace by Laura Crawshaw, also known as the "Boss Whisperer."

Tuesday, January 1, 2008
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Chapter 7: Why We Don't Take Bulls (or Bosses) by the Horns

There's no question that abrasive bosses do harm. So why don't we handle them and put an end to the pain they cause? Why don't peers and subordinates stand up for themselves? Why don't their superiors step in and set limits?

Your local matador will tell you that stepping into the bullring to take a bull by the horns is extremely risky business. The same holds for abrasive bosses: people don't step in to handle abrasive bosses for the same reason that people (with the exception of a few very well-paid matadors) don't take bulls by the horns: they're afraid.

There it is again, that same threat [results in] fear [results in] defense dynamic that we examined in bears, bosses, and now coworkers. Abrasive bosses perceive coworker incompetence, which stirs anxiety over their own competence and survival, which in turn provokes the fight defense: aggression. In response to this aggressive threat, coworkers experience survival anxiety and resort to the flight defense: withdrawal, otherwise know as laying low.

We don't step in to handle abrasive bosses because we're afraid of getting gored -- psychologically and professionally.


The View from Above

There's no mystery about why subordinates fear to tread upon an abrasive boss's dominance. But what about the abrasive boss's superiors (here referred to as management)? What keeps management from handling abrasive bosses? What wild horses dragged them away from the task of setting limits on abrasive behavior that disrupts the smooth flow of operations? Don't managers (including human resource staff) have the power to rein in this destructive aggression? Why don't they use it?

Here's the answer, straight from this boss whisperer's mouth: managers avoid handling the abrasive bosses who work under them because they're afraid.

Yes, it's that same 'ol threat [results in] fear [results in] defense dynamic in yet another incarnation.

And unlike subordinates, they have a lot more to be afraid of.

Their fears fall into two categories: the fear of being harmed by the abrasive boss, and fear of doing harm to the abrasive boss. I learned about these fears through observation and inquiry -- I've interviewed many managers of abrasive bosses as part of the coaching process and heard an earful.

I learned even more when I explored these fears with a group of managers.

Years ago I was approached by a human resource specialist who was frustrated by the fact that the managers in her company avoided dealing with problem employees, including the abrasive bosses who reported to them. Her words:

"They just won't do it -- they won't confront the individual until it's a crisis, and then they knock down my door trying to get me to deal with the situation. It's their job to manage their people -- not mine. Could you do a workshop that would train them to do it?"

I knew that if I trotted out the standard training approach (document carefully, provide feedback, set expectations, monitor for improvement) I'd be beating a dead horse. These managers didn't need training -- they already knew what they were supposed to do. They needed management whispering -- they needed to identify why they weren't doing it; they needed to develop insight into the fears that kept them from handling the abrasive bosses they were responsible for.

To develop their executive insight, I applied the Socratic method: "Why don't managers confront an abrasive boss?"

Note the phrasing -- it would have been too threatening to ask why they were "afraid" to confront, because fear is one of those taboo emotions at work, especially for management. Despite my careful third-person wording, these managers immediately responded in the first person, beginning with their fears of doing harm to the abrasive boss:

"He's turned this place around financially -- I don't want to get on his case."

"He's already got financial/family/health problems -- I don't want to add to his burden."

"What if she cries?" (a scenario dreaded by male managers)

"I don't want to damage his morale -- he's our lead man on the new project."

"I don't want to hurt her feelings -- she's been loyal to me and works harder than anyone else."

"He's got some difficult people on his team -- I don't want to undermine him."

"I've worried that he could go off the deep end -- that he might kill himself."

Surprised by that last comment? I was too, and I remain surprised at how often members of management voice fears that the abrasive boss will become self-destructive if confronted on his or her interpersonal incompetence.


Management's Mechanisms of Defense

The Mystery of the Missing Managers was solved: superiors flee the task of handling abrasive bosses because they're afraid of doing harm and/or being harmed by these aggressive individuals. And thanks to empathy, who can blame them? Who in their right mind wants to throw themselves on the horns of this dilemma, only to risk being impaled?


Like horses, bosses of abrasive bosses rely on flight, practically stampeding toward the door to avoid handling the threat of aggression. However, since they're paid to show up at work and can't physically flee the scene of these interpersonal crimes, these managers run defense via three avoidance maneuvers: denial, displacement, and delay.

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Denial. Denial is a handy-dandy defense mechanism -- all you have to do is deny that the problem exists. It's not hard to detect denial in managers of abrasive bosses. ... Denial allows us to shift the problem onto other people (employees) or phenomena (pressure). Denial also allows us to redefine the criteria for the problem. "He doesn't blow up that often" defines the problem as one of frequency vs. force.

I don't know about you, but I can't imagine an attorney defending a client against homicide charges by saying "He doesn't shoot people often enough for it to be a problem."

Denial also allows us to dilute the problem, by normalizing it as something we all do.

Displacement. Displacement is another popular flight strategy used by management to avoid handling an abrasive boss.

More commonly referred to as the "head 'em up-move 'em out" strategy by horse whisperers, displacing these unmanageable individuals can be achieved in a number of ways, including transfer, isolation, and starvation.

Transfer (also known as the geographic cure) involves facilitating the transfer of an abrasive boss to another division or department, where they can inflict injury on entirely new (and usually unwitting) populations. I am continually amazed by seemingly ethical managers who, devoid of guilt, sing the praises of their about-to-depart abrasive boss to his or her prospective new department: "He brings a lot to the table" (yeah, right).

Isolation consists of removing the abrasive boss from any supervisory responsibilities and relegating the offender to a role that demands minimal interaction with coworkers (also known as solitary confinement).

Starvation refers to the practice of eliminating an abrasive boss's sources of professional or psychological sustenance. This can be achieved by reassigning the boss to uninteresting, unrewarding, and conspicuously humiliating tasks in the hope of starving him or her out of the organization.

Delay. Delay is a less effective avoidance tactic because, unlike denial, one is required to recognize that the abrasive boss, is in fact, a problem. Houston, we have a problem. But here's the great thing about this particular defensive maneuver: Yes, we have a problem, but it just might go away if we avoid confronting it! ...

In its more extreme manifestation, delay takes the form of unrealistic, desperate fantasizing, also known as the pray for a miracle approach.

Such prayers can range from the innocuous "Maybe she'll marry the guy and decide to quit," to the malevolent: "Please let him be hit by a beer truck."

Unlike denial, where we turn a blind eye to the problem, delay allows us to avoid handling the problem even though we see it. Unfortunately, delay is a time-limited defense strategy, as anyone who has lingered too long in the path of a bus will tell you.

Reprinted with permission. Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to End Unnecessary Roughness in the Workplace (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, October 2007).

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