What to do When Abrasive Behavior Enters your Organization

by Mark Batson Baril, Resologics

In my work as an Ombudsman and conflict resolver I have encountered thirteen situations to date that have involved a leader with an abrasive leadership style. It’s been hard for me to admit, but it took eight of those cases over several years before I really understood what was going on — and what to do about it. In most of those eight cases the teams and organizations worked toward agreements that more or less stuck and the team’s performance improved. Yet, remaining underneath those changes was the abrasive behavior of the leader/individual that had not been addressed in a substantial way.

If this type of behavior exists in the organization we are working with and we have not been able to support the organization in working through it, we are merely enabling a patch to the problem and are not dealing with the underlying system at play. Eventually the negative outcomes from the abrasive behavior will negate any team improvements and come back to damage the workplace and, importantly, the people involved.

At some point in your work with employees, leaders, and teams, and potentially as one of 60 million adults in the U.S. who have directly experienced abusive conduct too, you have most likely come face-to-face with abrasive (bullying) behavior. I am not talking here about a personality conflict but a chronic pattern of disrespectful behavior.

What does this behavior look like? Abrasive conduct can range from mildly irritating to severely disruptive (otherwise known as workplace bullying). The effect on professional relationships and on the entire organization can be devastating, resulting in employee flight, reduced productivity, partner separations, and even litigation.

Some examples of abrasive behavior: 

  • Shouting
  • Swearing at others
  • Intimidation: glaring, snorting, etc.
  • Intentionally ignoring or excluding others
  • Publicly criticizing others
  • Condescension / Claims intellectual superiority
  • Sarcasm: hostile humor
  • Making threats
  • Abruptly walking out of meetings
  • Throwing objects


Some typical symptoms of abrasive leadership: 

  • Complaints regarding the individual's interactions with coworkers, customers, contractors, patients, students, etc.
  • Attempts by employees to transfer out of the leader’s department or avoid being transferred in
  • Attrition of valued employees
  • Decreased morale and motivation
  • Potential or actual harassment litigation


As an Ombuds, there are three major roadblocks to system change:

  1. What if the harmful behavior is coming from the most treasured talent?
  2. How do you report and work through this situation while maintaining confidentiality?
  3. In what ways can you support change in abrasive behavior.


Roadblock 1: What if the harmful behavior is coming from the most treasured talent?

Of course, everyone is valuable in the workplace, and this is especially true from the vantage point of an experienced Ombuds. Yet, when the abrasive behavior comes from a leader with broad influence and power, it can be a very challenging situation — the elephant in the room that nobody wants (or dares) to get near. The behavior is often tolerated because the person’s work is valuable — even seen as indispensable. So then, is “abrasive” behavior something we’re supposed to accept, work around, or forgive in the name of their expert contribution?

For one whose Ombuds work has involved abrasive leader situations — my answer is an emphatic NO, we are not supposed to accept abrasive behavior as any part of our process, nor is the organization. And, sometimes merely making the organizational system aware of the issue/trend is not enough. We find that ultimately, abrasive behavior in the workplace does more harm than good. One study showed these results1 reported by employees who had experienced the effects of an abrasive leader:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort
  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender
  • 66% said their performance declined
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined
  • 12% left their job because of the experience


Roadblock 2: How do you report and work through this situation while maintaining confidentiality?

If you find, or suspect, a positive diagnosis of abrasive behavior at any point in a process, visitor sessions, mediations, coaching, litigation or investigative processes, etc., be prepared to help parties make choices about the next steps they can take. Clear thinking and a solid diagnosis give you the capacity to address behavioral issues successfully before they cause more harm or sabotage any conflict resolution process.

  • If you are hearing about behaviors or symptoms from HR or management above the individual in question, the path is clear. You can work with them to further diagnose what is going on, and help them think through what the best steps are for intervention.
  • If you are hearing about the behaviors or symptoms from people at the same level of leadership as the individual in question, again the path is clear. You can work with them to further diagnose what is going on, and help them think through what the best steps are for intervention.
  • If you are hearing about the behaviors or symptoms from people who work for the abrasive individual, or people that know those people, depending on your charter and individual style, there are multiple paths to pursue as Ombuds: (1) work with the visitor(s) to explore ways they can make their experiences known to those in power; (2) use regular trend reporting to highlight symptoms of abrasive behavior you are aware of to the individual in question and/or management; (3) if the behaviors you are hearing about cross the organization’s physical or psychological “harm” line, approach HR or management in a way that maintains confidentiality of the people harmed while outlining the problem; (4) in rare circumstances, approaching the abrasive leader directly to initiate change can result in positive outcomes.


Roadblock 3: In what ways can you support change in abrasive behavior?

The good news: Abrasive behavior is learned — and can be unlearned 

Dr. Laura Crawshaw’s (The Boss Whispering Institute) research has exploded the myth that abrasive leaders intentionally set out to harm others. Instead, she found the opposite — lacking the ability to read other’s emotions, the majority of abrasive leaders are blind to the wounds they inflict. Often they are coachable, able to unlearn and shift their behaviors for the better. 

She tells the story of a surgeon she coached who defended his behavior by “arguing that he needed to shout, throw surgical instruments, and kick doors to get his assistants to perform adequately.” What was actually the case is that the surgeon’s team was so unnerved by his angry, abusive behavior that they made more errors, not less. 

Regardless of “style” or personality, the point is that if an individual’s conduct causes emotional distress — wounds, pain — in their coworkers, it is an issue that must be addressed. 

As Ombuds, where to start? 

Changing abrasive behavior is possible but it takes backbone and focused effort. It may take specialized expertise beyond our coaching tools and role in order to present the negative perceptions to the leader in question, explore what’s behind those perceptions and their behaviors, and find ways to change their management style so the perceptions go away for good. 

AWARENESS  —  Addressing the elephant in the room starts with awareness and reporting from those affected by these behaviors, and diagnosis. If you are an Ombuds hearing complaints in or out of visitor sessions, how do you determine if there is unacceptable conduct going on? For our own analysis, we built a unique tool called the Abrasive Leader Diagnostic™, designed to identify the nature and scope of abrasive conduct. A short questionnaire provides an instant report with results and next-step recommendations. We offer it now online, confidential (no personal info captured), and free, in order to empower you to diagnose the situation yourself and get a 360 view of what’s going on. It has helped me on numerous projects to gain clarity on the interpersonal situation. 

UNDERSTANDING  —  Conveying that for both ethical and practical reasons, it is the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace which protects their employees from psychological and physical harm. It is the Ombuds’ responsibility to both “dance” with the power dynamics and their own code of ethics as well as address the underlying systems that could potentially torpedo organizational health. 

KNOWING HOW TO SUPPORT CHANGE  —  Many situations involving diagnosed abrasive behaviors are not worth the major effort of turning around the abrasive individual and termination will be the most prudent, cost-effective way to go. Legal departments and contract attorneys often make this recommendation at the first hint of complaints, harassment, or investigative processes that turn up potential litigation. You play an important role in option building around this potential outcome. 

In those situations where the diagnosis should result in consequences for the individual, including termination, there are often underlying factors that could stall, or avoid altogether, that decision by those in power. For these situations there is a clear path and a proven methodology to shift abrasive behavior, retain the employee, and improve the dynamic in the team and organization. The four basic steps for management to start the change process are: 

  1. Diagnosis of behavior and a determination by the individual’s manager or HR that behavior change must happen  —  by a specific date.
  2. Specific consequences laid out for a failure to make those changes — by a specific date.
  3. Specialized coaching (Boss Whispering) offered (not required) to the abrasive leader to support the change needed.
  4. Declaration by the abrasive leader of their choice either to initiate the specialized coaching process or to make change in some other way.
  5. Start the clock. 


AND FINALLY —As Ombuds, our job is to support those in power in exploring options. We are trusted to use our best judgment and experience to deliver results in the form of a higher performing, inclusive, and safe organization. In rare situations we will encounter abrasive behavior by one or more team members, and in those cases we must be prepared to shift our process and share knowledge to accommodate the landscape and serve the organization in the best way possible.

(1) Pearson, C.M., & Porath, C.L. (2009). The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to do About It. New York: Portfolio/Penguin Group (USA). 

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Comments on "What to do When Abrasive Behavior Enters your Organization"

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Ronnie Thomson - Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Thank you Mark! Excellent review and reminders - especially like your tools on your website. Good stuff!

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