Feelings of Inadequacy as a Cause of Abrasive Management

Seven Essential Strategies for Handling an Abrasive Manager

There are numerous explanations for abrasive management practices. One is that that the boss doesn’t mean to be abrasive*. If your boss’ behavior is making you feel inadequate, there is a good chance that your boss is feeling the same way. Erratic and abusive behavior, such as conflicting expectations, mixed-messages, blame, shame, judgment, defensiveness and open contempt may be a symptom of your boss’ own fear and feelings of inadequacy.

What can you do if you’re facing abrasive behavior? Conventional responses i.e. keep a record of incidences, report to HR, or find another job, might be useful when addressing some types of aggression but are not particularly effective under any circumstances. Because abrasive bosses affect your confidence and self-esteem, the best course of action is protect yourself using strategies that provide both perspective and a constructive course of action.

Here are seven essential strategies to help you deal with an abrasive manager:

  1. Remember, you’re not the cause of the abrasive manager’s behavior, and you do have effective options for handling the situation at your disposal.
  2. No matter how much you may be inclined to try and adapt yourself to the demands of an abrasive manager, you’re dealing with someone who is wrestling with their own sense of inadequacy, so you cannot please them.
  3. Abrasive bosses shout, scream and carry on, but may be inclined to have short-term memory when it comes to their ranting. Wait out the tirade and don’t assume the abrasive manager means what he/she says.
  4. Maintain your health through proper rest, exercise and nutrition. NY State may have passed legislation allowing for healthcare costs related to workplace bullying but that’s a long, untested road to travel. Better to stay healthy than be depleted by an arduous lawsuit.
  5. Seek advice and counseling. Find a counselor or coach who is knowledgeable about abrasive management styles and can help you create specific coping and response strategies. Most books on the subject of “bullying” aren’t very helpful, although I do recommend Taming the Abrasive Manager by Laura Crawshaw.
  6. Visit my website: www.kathleenbartle.com for more information on how to handle aggressive behavior.
  7. Practice empathy or as the song says “Try a little tenderness.” I know, the last thing you may feel like doing right now is imagining that your boss actually has feelings. But if you can think of him/her as someone who is feeling fearful and inadequate and who doesn’t have the basic coping skills to communicate appropriately, it might be a little easier to diffuse the situation. Ask yourself, is the boss feeling threatened for some reason? What might that threat be? How does that threat raise his/her anxiety? Is the boss fighting with me because of that threat? Maybe there’s a way you can acknowledge that fear and offer assistance!

Here’s a case study that provides a good example of how to use empathy at work:

Client/target is manager of a new restaurant.

Restaurant owner is a talented sommelier but not an experienced entrepreneur.

Abrasive behavior: The inexperienced restaurant owner is in over her head, and has a tendency to overreact. She tries to exert control by enforcing rules that everyone obeys but when things don’t go according to plan she screams.

The Threat: The restaurant owner’s inexperience causes her to fear that the success of her investment is dependent on performance perfection, both hers and everyone else’s. The threat is obliteration, anhialation, extintion. Everyone else knows that a restaurant business will not fail on the basis of one poorly expedited dinner but the restaurant owner’s insecurity causes her to give all major and minor issues equal significance. As a result, when one customer experiences what she perceives as sub-standard service she feels a loss of control: that she cannot count on the team or depend on the usual strategies for success, and that leaves her feeling confused, isolated and incompetent.

Intervention: The client/manager can say, “Boss, I understand that this error may seem huge, and it is certainly a problem, but maybe it’s just an indication that some of our strategies aren’t working effectively. I think we can work this out by analyzing what happened and deciding if we need to be more flexible with the rules so we can account for the unexpected. In the meantime, let’s get that steak on the grill and take some glasses of wine over to the customers. I’ve got your back on this one.”

Caution: Keep in mind that we can’t always negotiate with a boss who’s freaking out. If someone’s over the top emotionally, you can always discuss the incident and offer empathetic support after he/she has calmed down.

Instrumental aggression is different than having an abrasive boss who is fearful. Next time, we’ll review what to do when the boss bullies you because he’s after your job, career, desk, spouse, or whatever.