3 Steps to Intervene with an Abrasive Leader

iStock-1043295220.jpgBrad is one of your top managers. From his early beginnings at the hospital as a nursing aide to now running one of the largest hospital units, he’s known for handling crisis situations with efficiency and apparent ease. He sets high expectations for himself and for those who work for him. As a result, his unit has high patient satisfaction scores and runs like a well-oiled machine. Sounds perfect, right?

Unfortunately, despite Brad’s high productivity and valued contributions to the hospital, his employees and coworkers can’t stand him. He’s known for his derogatory language with his employees, interrupts when others are speaking, and mocks employee’s ideas during staff meetings. When employees don’t perform to his expectations, he is quick to label them as “stupid” or “lazy.” His mood can go from zero to ten in a matter of seconds. Employees are afraid to approach him with questions or voice their ideas for fear of how they will be treated. His approach to ensuring high employee performance is considered abrasive and demoralizing and he tends to attack the person, rather than addressing performance issues in a constructive, respectful manner.

If you resonate with Brad’s leadership approach, you may not see a problem. From your perspective, you don’t have time to coddle people due to the fast pace of your unit and think people are just too sensitive and need to grow up. If that’s the case, click here to read, “What if you’re the bully.”

As with many leaders, Brad genuinely lacks insight as to how his behavior is negatively impacting his leadership credibility. It’s almost as if he has blinders about his behavior and doesn’t see a problem.

A study reported in the Harvard Business Review found that bosses spend roughly 13% of their time dealing with the aftermath of abrasive and uncivil behavior. While that percentage may seem low, when spread out over the course of a year 13% of your precious time equates to seven weeks!

If you are dealing with an abrasive leader who reports to you, most likely, you’re spending a lot of your time fielding phone calls and in person meetings listening to employee’s complaints. It’s your responsibility to intervene and address his or her behavior.

Not sure if one of your leaders is abrasive or just sets high standards?

Five Common Behaviors of Abrasive Leaders

Laura Crawshaw’s Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to End Unnecessary Roughness in the Workplace identifies five common behaviors of abrasive leaders based on more than four hundred cases of coaching abrasive leaders. Next to each behavior are examples of the type of complaints you may hear from employees and coworkers.

1. Over-control

Abrasive leaders micromanage and have a hard time delegating. If they delegate something, they’ll check up on their employees to make sure it was done their way.  They often refer to the unit as “my unit”, which gives staff the message they don’t want their input and the boss has total control.  They don’t make an effort to get to know their staff because they’re more interested in meeting their performance goals rather than building relationships with their employees.

2. Threats

If they’re helping out on the unit and people aren’t keeping up, they get annoyed and will take over, making comments inferring that their employees aren’t cut out for a fast-paced, high risk unit. Employees feel demoralized. People will quit because of how they lead through fear.

3. Public Humiliation

During staff meetings they’ll call people out in front of everyone about a mistake they made using it as a ‘learning opportunity’ for the rest of the team. Employees get yelled at in the hallway where patients and family members can hear. Employees feel on edge, never knowing when they’ll become a target.

4. Condescension

Abrasive leaders can come across as know-it-alls and better than anyone else. They don’t try to engage with employees or listen to their ideas. If someone does offer a suggestion, they’ll often roll their eyes and say ‘that’s a stupid idea, that won’t work’. Their reaction makes employees not want to speak up even if they see someone make a mistake.

5. Overreaction

During a crisis, it’s not unusual for abrasive bosses to yell at people. When the crisis is over, they will act as if nothing ever happened. They rarely apologize for outbursts even when confronted. They don’t listen to people to get the full story, will make snap judgements that often aren’t accurate and are quick to blame.

Sound like someone you know?

Ignore or Intervene?

It’s not unusual for the manager of an abrasive leader to be torn as to what to do. This leader might be extremely good at his or her job yet due to the volume of complaints you’ve received you can’t ignore how the behavior is negatively impacting employees and the unit culture. Employees are feeling apprehensive, on edge, and either quitting or transferring. When most hospitals are dealing with a nursing shortage, you can’t afford to lose good nurses because of an abrasive leader. To tolerate the abrasive leader’s behavior is no longer an option when you have good people leaving. Not only does abusive behavior violate your other employee’s right to a respectful, nonabrasive workplace, it hurts productivity, contributes to high costs of turnover, and compromises patient safety.

What can you do?

Three Steps to Intervene

Intervening early with an abrasive, disruptive leader takes intentionality. Often executive leaders put it off by excusing the high performer’s behavior and rationalizing things will improve after some stressor in their life is over. The reality is without direct feedback about unacceptable behavior, it only gets worse and causes more heartache and hurt to employees.

Here are 3 steps to intervene:

  1. Address the impact of unacceptable behavior

Scripting Suggestion: “I’ve received a steady stream of complaints from employees about their experiences of interacting with you. I’ve heard that during a staff meeting you’ve called people stupid. I’ve also heard you’ve yelled at employees in the hallway. Employees are quitting from your unit or threatening to quit and its impacting nurses’ ability to concentrate. Your behavior is putting our patients at risk.”

  1. Set clear expectations

Scripting Suggestion: “You’re a competent leader and we want you to be here. However, these behaviors aren’t acceptable and can’t continue. If the behaviors continue, we’ll look at other options.”

  1. Offer help and the choice to change

Scripting Suggestion: “We value you and want you to be here. This isn’t about your performance, this about how you interact with your employees that has to change. If you’d like help, we are willing to offer you support to turnaround these behaviors IF…you are willing to work on your behavior.”

This is where leadership coaching can be very helpful and may actually turn things around.

Our Abrasive Leader Coaching Program is specifically designed for key leaders who are valued employees but interpersonally rub people the wrong way. Through a 5 Phase Coaching Process, abrasive leaders are offered the opportunity to gain insight to how their behavior impacts others and replace abrasive behaviors with tact, consideration, and empathy.

You don’t want to lose your valuable leaders when you don’t have to.

Bonnie Artman Fox is on a mission to help individuals and organizations resolve conflict, build trust, and accelerate bottom line results! As a speaker, licensed therapist, and Accredited Boss Whisperer® Coach, she brings 20+ years to the Healthy Workforce Institute specializing in helping leaders replace abrasive behavior with productive management strategies.

If you’d like help to intervene with one of your high performers exhibiting abrasive behavior, like Brad, we can help. Just contact us at the Healthy Workforce Institute to learn more about our leadership coaching services!

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