Workplace Bullies and Abrasive Leadership Coaching

The following is a guest post by Frank Faeth. Workplace Bullies and Abrasive Leadership Coaching first appeared in Wolf in the Workplace, the newsletter of Wolf Management Consultants, LLC.

Workplace bullying is rampant. According to a Workplace Bullying Institute survey, “more than a third of adult Americans report being bullied at work, and 15 percent witness it and are made miserable.”

Sadly, most of us don’t know how to counter the bully’s bad behavior. Oftentimes, the bully is a star performer, making it even harder for both management and human resource executives to confront the looming problem. Employers frequently don’t act, even though keeping an abusive leader onboard is often more risky and costly than pursuing solutions.

The first thing human resource executives can do is to understand what makes a bully tick, and know when calling in an executive coach is a viable course of action.

Abrasive leaders at any level can inflict deep wounds and intense suffering in employees. The organization often experiences the pain of working with an abrasive executive, manager, or supervisor as well, eroding effectiveness and paralyzing productivity. Few of us have escaped the pain of working under, over, or with an abrasive leader.

An abrasive leader is someone in a managerial position whose interpersonal behavior causes emotional distress in coworkers sufficient to disrupt organizational functioning. The intensity and extent can be wide-ranging, from minor and infrequent incidents to more extreme manifestations of aggression.

Abrasive leaders tend to:

  • Perceive coworker incompetence as a direct threat to their own competence
  • Employ aggression to defend against the perception of incompetence
  • Believe use of aggression is not just necessary to achieve organizational goals, but noble as well
  • Deny any role in generating negative perceptions about themselves
  • Be entirely unaware or only minimally aware of the nature and degree of their destructive impact on coworkers

Research indicates that abrasive leaders do not intentionally commit harm as is commonly believed, and are not fully aware of their action or the wounds they inflict.

Coaching abrasive leaders is not straightforward. Any perceived threats to their professional competence will be vigorously defended against with the fight mechanism and interpersonal aggression. Because they need to demonstrate their superiority, in the classic coaching process they experience immediate and intense anxiety and defend against these threats.

By the time a coach is called in, the leader’s interpersonal incompetence overshadows his or her technical competence, and the organization’s negative perceptions now threaten the leader’s professional survival. This leads to two difficulties for the coach: 1) Forming a trusted coaching alliance; and 2) Engaging the client despite their denial of a need for coaching.

So what does a coach do?

The client engages the coach as his co-researcher, interviewing coworkers to discover the negative perceptions and identifying what causes them. The findings give the coach and client an opportunity to develop strategies to eliminate negative perceptions and to manage them out of existence. The data collected informs the client of the nature and degree of the distress generated, helping remove the blinders blocking the client’s awareness of other’s emotions.

The key difference here versus more classic executive coaching is that we’ve moved from eliminating negative client behaviors to eliminating negative coworker perceptions. By doing so, the leader can fight against perceived threats to his competence and help them

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