7 Steps to Keep Abrasive Leadership from Spreading

  • By Katrina Burrus, Ph.D., MCC
  • Published: 8/28/2020
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Peter Simmons is a decisive self-starter and problem solver who has rocketed up the corporate ladder at Tempus, a maker of fine watches in Switzerland. Nine months ago, he was entrusted with running the finance department of the Asian division. The previous finance director had left the division in disarray. Half of the employees left, leaving the remaining employees disheartened, confused and demotivated. Peter accepted the challenge to take over the division and quickly got to the heart of the financial problems, cutting through corporate red tape to restructure the finance department. Now, under his leadership as finance director, the CEO had a dashboard that allowed her to navigate the company and make the right decisions to keep the organization from losing money.

Unfortunately, the path to this major turnaround had still not addressed the continued rampant turnover and low morale. While Peter stopped the chaos and restructured the division, he still needed to address the lack of productivity by increasing employees' morale and by enhancing a more collaborative style of leadership in his division.  Only then would he assure the long-term functioning of his division. Peter was an outstanding financier, but had little experience managing people. Peter, with his coach, his sparring partner, was going to implement his strategy to stop abrasive behavior and enhance collaboration amongst his team by implementing 7 powerful actions.

1. Implement leadership principles that convey desired management behaviors. Every organization should have principles that describe the desired behaviors of all employees. These principles should be consistently articulated through meetings, team and project launches, manager's speeches and activities oriented to ensure everyone understands acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Failure to do so will increase misbehavior.

2. Stop excusing bad behavior as necessary. Abrasive behavior can sometimes be deemed necessary for a desired turnaround in an organization—at least initially, until it becomes a crisis. Some might think division heads or team members are simply inexperienced as leaders and the problem will resolve itself over time. Others may think the financial success Peter has brought to a failing division is reason enough to tolerate his own bad behavior. However, this fails to consider the damage Peter could cause in the course of achieving these results. Over time, such damage may greatly outweigh any short-term financial success Peter is able to generate.

3. Focus not only on results, but also how those results were reached. Leaders should be evaluated not only on what they achieve but on how they achieve it. Companies are often too results oriented. Leaders tend to focus on what needs to be done and the key performance indicators, but they rarely pay attention to how the work is done and whether employees are using acceptable behaviors to achieve those good results. This focus on outcome over methods allows toxic behavior to remain unchecked for years, affecting morale and discouraging collaboration.

4. Specify acceptable behaviors at the start of a new project. Team members should identify the behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable within the team. The team should then create a list of these behaviors that each team member will sign as a symbol of their covenant.

5. Challenge misconduct as soon as it occurs. Too often, managers do not intervene when they witness bad behavior because they have a vested interest in the results that tough behavior is perceived to provide. Heads of teams or division heads may also fear that a successful but abrasive team member may retaliate, create a scene, or leave the company with no viable successor. However, to allow misconduct to go unchallenged tacitly condones it.

6. Communicate the consequences of misbehavior. Talking to team members about being nicer to others may not work because interpersonal relationships are their blind spot. Many team members have a high IQ or expertise but have little to no EQ (emotional intelligence). They might even excuse this behavior and accuse the hurt employee of being incompetent or oversensitive. However, what team members will understand clearly is the consequences of not changing. Therefore, offer them an opportunity to change their ways to become inspiring team leaders.

7. Offer leadership coaching to an abrasive team member. Peter is unlikely to know how to change team members’ behavior if he is unaware of his own and their uncivil behavior. This is why a brilliant financial professional should be offered the support of a customized coaching program by a specialist to help them transform any demotivating behaviors into empowering leadership, while leveraging their strengths. It’s a tough leadership coaching process, but once they master it, it opens doors they never thought possible. The manager not only ends up having a high IQ but also an exceptional EQ.

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