Is it Bullying…or General Abrasive Behavior?


“What’s Going On Here?”

You’re at work, and there’s that trouble employee again. You know who I’m talking about – the one who everyone avoids.  He may be your supervisor, your subordinate, or a peer. But his consistently unpleasant and “prickly” behavior can ruin the whole day for all of your employees that must interact with him. What he asks for and does isn’t outrageous – it is the way he does it.

You and your employees avoid him whenever you can, but in order to do business, you have to deal with him. You wonder why he is so prickly. The person seems afraid and sometimes he is really nice. Does he know how his irritating behavior is to others?  Doesn’t he see everyone’s response to him? Does he know that others want to help him and are not working against him? Is this bullying? What’s going on here?

Bullying vs. General Abrasive Behavior
In general, workplace bullying is defined as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done

Though helpful, this definition of bullying does not capture or correctly describe Abrasive Behavior. In fact, it has entirely different identifying characteristics than described in the classic definition of “bullying”. Recognizing it is important because Abrasive Behavior requires a specific response so that you don’t make things worse.

What is General Abrasive Behavior?
Typically, General Abrasive Behavior is harsh, strident and verbal behavior that is hurtful and leaves people feeling annoyed more than frightened. They are words that grate on subordinates, peers and superiors.  Their actions and way of speaking is generally irritating.  As terrible as this is, what separates someone who displays abrasive behavior from classic “bullying” is surprising.

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.

Why Are They Abrasive?
Well, without sitting them down and talking, you are not likely to know the exact specifics of what made them this way, and I do not recommend that you try to find out what is going on if you do not understand the level of defensiveness abrasive people have. But there are some common elements that are the sources this kind of behavior.

They are afraid. They may be afraid of being seen as weak or stupid, or they are fearful of losing their job or worried about not measuring up. Believe it or not, they may even be afraid of YOU.

They are defensive. This ties in with fear, in that they don’t want to be perceived as making any kind of mistake, or displaying any kind of weakness or error. They do not understand how they are being perceived by others and are shocked when others complain them.

They are anxious.  They have a hard time calming down. Simple slights make them anxious. They are not easy to talk with.

In What Types of Organizations Does General Abrasive Behavior Take Place?
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.”

Consequences for You, the Employer
If left undealt with, the consequences of General Abrasive Behavior can drive away star employees, increase the number of serious and possibly litigious complaints, and decrease your productivity.  Employees don’t like to interact with abrasive people, so you can expect absenteeism and medical costs associated with the stress of dealing with abrasives to increase. These are all serious issues that will impact your bottom line.

What’s the Fix?
Not mediation. If you want to know more about why mediation won’t work, check out my blog about it here.

Not threats. This will only make the person feel more fearful, anxious, defensive, and aggressive. And you will likely be threatened in return.

Not demanding improvements. Even if you were this person’s superior, demanding improvements will likely make them more worried, abrasive and defensive. They truly do not know what behaviors are abrasive and what can be done about the abrasive behaviors they are expressing.

Not leadership training. For leadership training to work, these abrasive people must want to improve themselves. People who display abrasive behavior are generally unable or unwilling to admit they need improvement.

Only Highly Specialized Guidance Helps
People who consistently display General Abrasive Behavior need a highly specialized intervention to learn new behaviors.  If you want to keep this key employee, you will have to deal with the abrasive behavior in a way that works. Such guidance helps build new strategies for coping with others, handling fears, and changing behaviors. The results are powerful and long-lasting.

Why it Pays to Deal with General Abrasive Behavior
By effectively dealing with General Abrasive Behavior,you can help keep key employees, and reduce friction across your organization. You can also increase productivity, reduce absenteeism, and cut medical costs.  Overall, you will improve your ROI.

The Five Types of Conflict
There are five types of interpersonal conflict within organizations. Abrasive Behavior is one type. Each type requires its own tailored solution. If you treat all workplace conflicts the same way, you have a 1 in 5 chance of success. You can improve your success ratios with the right help.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts. You can contact me here.