General Abrasive Behavior

General Abrasive Behavior

Recently I received a call from a middle manager in a social welfare organization. I’ll call her Fatina. Fatina called because she had been warned by her supervisor that her harsh words and actions were negatively impacting her reputation and career. Simultaneous to this confrontation, she was told by her pastor that people were upset about her. Specifically they were complaining about harsh words and judgments. Everyone liked her – sort of – but many were afraid of her. Both Fatina’s boss and her pastor believed in her and felt that she was a good person, but also felt she was unaware of how her words, tone, and judgments were being perceived by others. In my evaluation, I had to concur. Fatina was a good person who meant well but she has a lot of fear, is under a lot of pressure, and believes that expediency requires abruptness. Read on for the definition and explanation of Abrasive Behavior and then find out what happened in this case.

DEFINITION of General Abrasive Behavior:

General: affecting or concerning all or most people, places, or things; widespread. Abrasive: (of a person or manner) showing little concern for the feelings of others; harsh. People who are abrasive in this way are oftentimes fearful. They use harsh, strident and verbal behavior that is hurtful in general and leaves most people around them feeling annoyed more than frightened. They do not target anyone in particular.


General Abrasive Behavior can take anyplace and anywhere, and can be found in every organization from entry-level to c-suite. Though other conflict types are more likely to found in certain types of organizations, this one is truly “equal opportunity.”


  • Uses unnecessary harsh or grating words
  • Defensive justifications for their actions
  • Aloof or oblivious nature
  • Difficulty forming bonds
  • Generally unfriendly, unpleasant


  • Drives away star employees
  • Litigious complaints
  • Decreased productivity
  • High absenteeism
  • High medical costs
  • Bottom line impact


  • Investigate
  • Confront
  • Educate
  • Add Training


Abrasive people are truly unaware of their behavior and how they come across to others. That’s right. Not only are they NOT intentionally trying to upset others, they don’t even see or recognize that what they are doing is hurting others. They are surprised and very upset when they learn others feel that they may be “bullying”. This is not an excuse for their behavior. This is an important perspective to grasp in order to understand and deal with them.


Uses unnecessary harsh or grating words General Abrasives (GAs) use blunt and harsh language as a matter of course in a wide variety of interactions. The behavior may range from mere blunt actions and words to behavior that is truly offensive, insensitive, and annoying. GAs have little self awareness, and though the words are irritating, they are not personal attacks. Defensive behavior Though it may seem counter intuitive, many GAs are actually sensitive to other’s remarks, despite being unaware of their own. As a result, they may respond disproportionately to criticism, feedback, or simple requests. The overreaction to small issues may be surprising and disrupting. Aloof or oblivious nature GAs are not adept at reading others’ body language, tones and intentions and therefore may miss social and verbal cues. This may give them an appearance of being oblivious to obvious discomfort around their behavior and a reputation for being aloof. Difficulty Forming Bonds Unlike people that display other types of bullying behavior, GAs are not charming or persuasive and have difficulty forming bonds with others at work. Their generally irritating behavior isolates them and reinforces their negative responses to others. Generally Unfriendly, Unpleasant People rarely feel physically threatened or scared by GAs; rather, they feel annoyed, irritated, or exhausted by being around them. GAs tend to behave consistently with everyone – they are not intending to single anyone out or intentionally cause harm.


Drives away star employees Nobody likes to interact with consistently abrasive people, particularly your star employees. Rather than wait for you to “fix” or improve the situation, your top talent will often instead leave and work with a team they feel they can be more productive with. Once talent starts to leave, it can create a domino effect where others will follow, and you may be left with a severely compromised team. Litigious complaints You can expect the number of serious, even litigious complaints to increase. If management has not made significant moves to reign in a generally abrasive employee, morale will decrease and the GAs behavior will get worse, eventually resulting in a formal backlash from other employees. Decreased productivity For other employees, part of the natural response to GAs is to withdraw from dealing with them, which means projects, collaboration, communication, and overall productivity suffers. High absenteeism If the situation is bad enough, employees won’t stop at just withdrawing from dealing with a GA—often they will just not show up to work. Others will become depressed, anxious, or ill from dealing with such an abrasive person and will be legitimately sick. Either way, absenteeism will get worse. High medical costs With increased sickness comes increased medical costs. Depression can take it’s toll as well as other physical forms of anxiety: intestinal distress, headaches, insomnia, and the like. This can add up quickly. Bottom line impact GAs hurt the bottom line by impacting productivity and community as well as through possible claims by those who have been hurt and pushed out by the GA’s behavior. Adding to that the expense of medical costs and absenteeism and you can see real damage to the bottom line.


Here’s what doesn’t work in all cases of abrasive and bullying behavior: threats of consequences if things don’t improve, pleading for improvement, appealing to the higher wisdom of community and respect, hoping, wishing, and/or ignoring the behavior. Here are some helpful solutions that are known to work with abrasive behaviors. Investigate A good investigation of abrasive behavior would include collecting information from 6-8 colleagues, some identified by the abrasive person. You want to have both positive and negative attributes. So be sure to ask “what’s right” as well as “what’s wrong”. Report It is necessary to report your finding to the abrasive person. Only by confronting him or her with the fact will you have any chance of change. The facts speak for themselves. You don’t have to convince the abrasive person something is wrong—the information is a collection of comments. Identify the Impact Help the person understand the impact of their abrasive behavior. The person will be shocked and upset. That’s okay—it’s natural to be upset as the person doesn’t really mean to be hurting others. They really are unaware of the impact of their abrasiveness. Learn Empathy Abrasive people seem to lack empathy but have the capacity to develop it, so help them to feel what others are feeling when they are abrasive. This will allow them to think differently before they speak. Teach There are a few very helpful training modules for these situations. The first is the brilliant book by Laura Crawshaw: Taming the Abrasive Manager. This book outlines how the abrasive manager comes to be and how to do an investigation. In addition to her book, I use Patrick Lencioni’s Model outlined in The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team to model help people learn to use goals, strategies and tactics to supervise rather than emotions. His book is a wonderful review of the power of structure for management. In addition he has a section on “healthy conflict”. Another wonderful source of inspiration for learning healthy communication is sociologist John Gottman. His research identifies 4 key behaviors that show up when people are afraid. He calls these behaviors The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Oftentimes my clients reject the idea that they use these behaviors but I have never not seen them when looking at abrasive behavior.


Fatina hired me to work with her on her abrasiveness. So, while I didn’t have a chance to survey her colleagues we had enough information to start some conflict coaching. Fear We focused on her fears first. Fatina was fearful about the complaints but was resistant to the idea that her abrasiveness was based on her other fears. Her clients were difficult, she was on the road a great deal, her home life was challenging, she was stressed and worried about finances. Fatina was busy rushing around trying to get things done. When anything went wrong her fears made her brittle and abrasive and unable to negotiate. Learn Empathy Fatina needed help in seeing that her clients needed her to be supportive and understanding not just directive and authoritative. Fatina’s urgency to “get things done” make her abrasive. The fastest way to learn empathy is to learn how to ask questions. Fatina learned to look at the clients issues as just that-their issues. Her job was to listen and offer solutions AFTER the listening. The process took only a few extra minutes but the results were that her clients felt connected to her. Learn limits of Power Fatina’s work was a real challenge. She had a lot of responsibility and not a lot of authority so documenting her work was paramount. The more she reported action steps the more it became clear where she was vulnerable, working from fear, and where her clients were stonewalling her instructions. This helped empower her to talk with her supervisors and get advice on next steps instead of sounding like she was whining or bullying others. Stop being a Victim Fatima felt falsely accused of being abrasive but realized that there was some truth to the complaints. As she changed her behavior she found her power and strength. She became more flexible and was able to listen and also be heard. Many of the complaints about her ended. Her boss felt she was more cooperative and her clients were happier. When the most difficult and manipulative clients complained about Fatima it because obvious that the problems were with the client not with Fatima.