What Actually Defines an Abrasive Leader?

The expression “abrasive leader” is very important in the workplace. Often some of the most gifted individuals are extremely difficult to work with but because of their talent, companies want to keep them, if at all possible. The term abrasive leader “refers to any individual charged with authority, formal or informal, whose interpersonal style causes distress sufficient to disrupt individual and/or organization functioning. This term is preferred over “bully” in that it does not suggest or imply intent to harm.”[1]

A good example, I believe, is former Canadian Governor General Julie Payette. She is an engineer, scientist and former astronaut who completed two spaceflights and logged more than 25 days in space. She was the capsule communicator at NASA Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas and she also served from 2017 to 2021 as the Governor General of Canada.

Payette resigned in 2021 from her position as Governor General after an external review found she created a “toxic” and “poisonous workplace” that was a verbally abusive environment. Her abrasive leadership approach drove many employees to quit or to go on sick leave. Her formal review came following a CBC News report on claims that Payette had belittled, berated and publicly humiliated staff, in some cases reducing them to tears.[2]

Leaders of this type may be men or women who look strong, imposing, and self-confident. But, in fact, their abrasive reaction is typically triggered by fear. They may fear losing face or not looking competent enough, or of losing their promotion, position, status. So, if an employee does not do what they want, the way they want, when they want, it triggers the fear of not being able to perform at the level they’d like to. In other words, the employee becomes a threat to the success of the abrasive leader. The abrasive leader’s gut reaction to that threat may be any number of inappropriate reactions. They may try to:

  • tightly control others (macro-managing)
  • abuse their power (accusing others of being insubordinate if they do not comply)
  • demean employees in front of others (intimidation)
  • try to catch employees in a faulty position (someone may be late coming back from lunch, even if they worked two hours overtime at home the night before)
  • question other’s competence (providing unrealistic deadlines or tasks, or by not providing clear objectives and/or enough resources to do the task).

The employees or supporting staff are often seen to be just in the way of the abrasive leader getting what they want. Their behavior may be just as callous as a bear seeing a basket of blueberries behind you on the picnic table. The bear will quickly brush you away, without concern for your welfare or safety, to get what he wants. You are simply in their way.

Unfortunately, the abrasive leaders may be excellent at playing good and nice in the face of their superiors while pushing others to the limits of their emotional, physical and mental capacities. Their objective is to look good and competent to their superiors and they expect others to make that happen. And that behavior of a habitually abrasive leader will continue till numerous complaints come to the attention of the higher authorities, threatening their image and forcing them to take action.

Of course, the system encourages that behavior by rewarding competition. The concept that is often presented is simply that “if you can’t do it, someone else will.” The system protects the strong and capable, the one who gets results at any cost, who is ready to sacrifice his personal life and his health to satisfy the system. And many abrasive leaders thrive in this environment because they feel powerful and appreciated. Even if they crush the flowers without realizing they are destroying the environment around them (bruising people), they work for the cause in their own minds and bring results to the employer. Thus, the competitive system often perpetuates the problem and inadvertently rewards abrasive behavior.

However, the cost to the organization and the individuals within it that allows this abrasive behavior is immense. It produces unhappy and stressed employees who are deprived of their confidence and enthusiasm, which shuts off their creativity and undermines their ability to contribute. The costs can be measured in the following:

  • decreased productivity
  • increased sick leaves
  • talented staff leaving and moving away
  • cost and energy to train a new staff
  • increase in formal and legal complaints
  • bad public image and reputation of the organization
  • the loss of the best and talented who won’t want to work there

Having a specialized executive coach who knows how to help an abrasive leader or manager can make all the difference in the world. One who specializes in recognizing and mitigating this type of behavior in abrasive leaders can not only help the company, but they can help the leader become the best she or he can be. A specialized coach and consultant can turn the abrasive leader into an inspiring leader. This constructive approach can represent a staggering savings in corporate energy, money and reputation. It can help greatly increase productivity for an organization and allow them to attract the best of the best.

Jocelyne Durand provides exceptional one-on-one specialized coaching and executive consulting. She regularly is called upon to provide one-on-one coaching and also offers specialized corporate executive consulting to achieve greater harmony and balance with high level talent. She provides an extensive program that is known to lead to higher levels of cooperation and success in the workplace. In addition, she offers customized personal analysis and consulting, individualized specialized executive consulting, and serves as an executive coach for abrasive leaders.

[1] Extract from the Summary proceedings: The First Annual Colloquium on Abrasive Conduct in Higher Education, University of California, Santa Barbara (July 22 & 23, 2013) p. 13

[2] http://www.cbc.ca/ Former governor general Julie Payette won’t lose her Order of Canada, advisory council says, January 11, 2022

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Jocelyne Durand