Strategic Abrasive Behavior

Strategic Abrasive Behavior


I received a call from a UCLA professor and researcher. The professor was a highly accomplished and powerful leader in her field – almost a “golden child”. Over the years she received major NSF (National Science Foundation) grants and had a substantial staff of professionals. Graduate students used to throw themselves at her feet in order to have an opportunity to work with her. She had friends in the department and she had professional relationships across the globe.

But, when she called me she was in desperate straits. Over the past 2 years she had lost her focus, her relationships and her team. She called me after learning that she was being removed from a very powerful and prestigious committee assignment and was being replaced by the person who was, in her words “a bully destroying my career.” She blamed a relatively new researcher for the problem, and was calling me because she was desperate for help with a situation that was out of control and in reality ruining her career.

Her response to his aggression was to withdraw. She never challenged his comments nor talked with her students and staff about the gossip. Instead she stopped coming into the lab, stopped attending department meetings, stopped networking with her colleagues and even missed deadlines. By the end of the first year she stopped doing one of her most important activities—joint grant applications with other scientists. In other words, she was reinforcing the rumors her contender was spreading about her—that she was “washed up”, “out for herself”, “finished”, “selfish”, etc.

Once I had the background of events, from her point of view, it became clear that she was dealing with a person who had decided to take over her niche, including her grants and her team. And he was succeeding because she was allowing him to do it. She played softball when hardball was required. She was dealing with a Strategic Bully or someone using Strategic Abrasive Behavior to eliminate his competition.

First read all about Strategic Abrasive Behavior and then you’ll find the approaches we used in this case and the final outcome.


DEFINITION of Strategic Abrasive Behavior

Strategic: Calculating, tactical, political, judicious and shrewd are some ways to explain strategic behavior.

Abrasive: Rude, hostile, mean, annoying and irritating are some ways to explain abrasive behavior.

Together: Strategic Abrasive Behavior in the context of workplace bullying means that someone is calculating and shrewd in their attempts to create a hostile work environment for those they see as competitors.

Strategic Abrasives are:

  • Competitive

  • Ambitious

  • Ruthless


  • Academia

  • Law

  • Medicine

  • Sciences

  • High-pressure sales

  • Start-ups

  • High finance

  • Politics

Strategic Abrasive Behavior happens in scenarios where the pressure is high, the stakes are higher, and everyone is competing for precious dollars or status. When employees are experiencing Strategic Abrasive Behavior, the attacker may see the target as a competitor, and the attacker is trying to win.


  • Verbal attacks

  • Gossip about your character

  • Lies or makes false accusations

  • Sabotages your work

  • Uses intimidation or scare tactics

  • Takes credit for your work

  • Collude with others to get their way

  • Shouts or prone to angry outbursts

  • No loyalty


  • Lose key creatives and innovators

  • Employee morale suffers

  • Teamwork suffers

  • Work productivity decreases

  • Damage to the bottom line


  • Correctly Identify SA Behavior

  • Clarify organizational culture

  • Decide if it is a reasonable behavior given the culture of the organization

  • Create structure, if SA Behavior does not match the culture of the organization

  • Closely supervise

  • Coach

  • Move on


People displaying Strategic Abrasive Behavior are extremely competitive and want to win. They gossip, lie, cheat, and destroy work in an effort to get ahead. They act this way toward anyone they consider to be “in their way”.


But, three points here:

  • SA behavior is not particularly personal. Anyone perceived as a competitor is a target. Once the target is out of the way, the abrasive behavior ends. I have seen SA people try to become friends with their former competitors. “It’s just business”, they say.

  • SA behavior is not always in the interests of the company. They can easily destroy your best employees if it suits their personal goals.

  • You cannot count on an SA to “have your back”. He or she may be attacking someone else today but you may be the one tomorrow.

SAs will do whatever it takes to win regardless of consequences to any individual or the company bottom line.

Strategic Abrasive people are found in highly competitive fields such as law, medicine, or academia and politics as well as in sales and real estate. If you are in a workplace that is hierarchical and competitive, then expect this type of abrasive behavior. Strategic abrasive behavior may seem to be “bullying” and you may feel ill as a result of the stress, but it is critical to see this behavior as a function of the career path and workplace demands. By correctly identifying Strategic Abrasive Behavior for what it is, one can choose the right solutions.


Verbal attacks

Though verbal attacks are common among other bullying types, it differs with Strategic Abrasives (SAs) because their attacks are not particularly personal—they are part of a strategy used to win. SAs will use insulting or demeaning words, epithets, attacks on your character, and other harmful tactics in attempt to get ahead.


Gossip about your character

Sometimes an SA will use a more devious strategy and gossip behind your back. They may use an existing character trait, such as your gender or race, as a verbal weapon when talking to your peers or superiors. Or they may exaggerate or invent something that is completely untrue in order to besmirch your reputation. If they perceive your status to be higher than theirs and a threat to their own advancement, then they won’t hesitate to use such a tactic.


Lies or makes false accusations

In addition to lying about your character, an SA may also lie about things you have done or not done in an attempt to get you into trouble or get isolated from important work. They want you to be banished or ostracized, so if you are innocent of any offense, they might invent one that will suit their purpose.


Sabotages your work

Sometimes words are not enough, and an SA might actively sabotage your work, going to great lengths to make you look bad. They might shut you out of a meeting, leave you out of the loop, delete or alter work you have produced, make damaging phone calls or emails on your behalf, or create an environment where effectively completing your work is impossible. For them, the end justifies the means.


Uses intimidation or scare tactics

SAs will use threats of any kind, veiled or pointed, to scare you. Though they may not always follow through with their threats, the objective is always the same – to scare you into submission or acquiescence. The power of the SAs ability to exercise that threat of destroying your reputation, project, or career is often enough to make you yield.


Takes credit for your work

An SA will recognize when someone’s work is superior to their own, so if there is an opportunity to take credit for your work, they will do it. An SA doesn’t believe you are inferior competition; if he or she is targeting you, it is because you are a threat to their interests. Therefore, being a better worker and better at your job may make you an even bigger target, and it will be very tempting for an SA to take credit for your work.


Collude with others to get their way

When an SA can’t get what they want by acting alone, they will persuade and collude with others to get their way. Many SAs are very experienced in this tactic, and have advanced social skills to be persuasive and charming to others. As a target of such collusion, you might be surprised how your peers have turned against you, seemingly overnight.


Shouts or prone to angry outbursts

As part of a general intimidation strategy, SAs might use aggressive shouting or unpredictable anger to terrify you. Keeping you cowed and in lower status will help them gain an edge over time.


No loyalty

SAs are always looking out for number one. Though they may build temporary alliances, ultimately they will exercise whatever tactic they wish to get ahead, no matter who it may damage. On the flip side, if you are not “in the way” of an SAs designs, it is unlikely you will be a direct target.


Lose key creatives and innovators

SAs are not interested in what is most important for the company. They will try to eliminate anyone they see as a competitor. It is common for very good employees who can produce excellent results to leave because of the SA behavior.


Employee morale suffers

SAs are common in highly competitive workplaces, but they’re not the only employees. Unfortunately, the SA will behave abrasively toward anyone they see as a competitor and they may become abrasive toward everyone around them.


Teamwork suffers

If there are times when a team has to work together to accomplish a goal, the SA will be hard pressed to put aside their uber-competitiveness and cooperate. It is best to avoid putting an SA with a group that can work together.


Work productivity decreases

A common result of SA behavior is that others will withdraw from the abrasive person. They will “give up” contributing and so projects suffer.


Damage to the bottom line

SAs 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 SAs behavior. In one case I received, the SA had alienated his entire team of workers such that they all quit the same day and filed what became a very expensive lawsuit and settlement.


Identify SA Behavior

SA behavior is predictable and logical in highly competitive environments. One should expect this behavior and be prepared for it.


Clarify Organizational Culture

If your organization is not premised on internal competition, then it’s vital to inform the SA person that they have the wrong strategy for success.


What is Reasonable Behavior?

SA behavior is acceptable and expected in highly competitive environments where there is internal competition. It makes perfect sense to compete with one’s colleagues if that is what will get one to the top.


Create Structure

If SA behavior is not applicable to your organization, and you wish to keep this person, then create crisp and rigid job descriptions, outlines for meetings, deliverables, notes & clear descriptions of deliverables go a long way to control the SA person. The structure forces the SA person to keep to tasks and assignments and keep them from setting up their colleagues for failure.


Closely Supervise

SA managers need to be supervised closely. I suggest daily supervision meetings to cover deliverables and behavior. As things improve, I suggest meeting at least twice a week. Be sure to include discussions with the team the SA manages and attend any meetings the SA attends or leads to assess the SAs behavior.



Coaching is appropriate if you wish to keep this person and his or her behavior is not aligned with the culture of the organization. If there is alignment, then the problem is with those who are losing to this SA person. Decide if you want to keep those who can’t tolerate the competition.


Move On

If you are the target of SA behavior, and the culture is aligned with this SA behavior, then you are the one with the bad match. Plan your exit and find an organization with a culture that is a better match for you.


Strategic Abrasive Behavior

In the case of the research professor, it was clear that person using Strategic Abrasive Behaviors was using everything possible to eliminate her as a competitor. He gossiped about her, maligned her research, poached her students and staff with his rumors. He talked about her with the Chair of the Department and her reaction – withdrawal – played into his hands and helped him harm her.



Many people advise people suffering from this thing we call “workplace bullying” including Strategic Abrasive Behavior to make a complaint to HR or to a senior administrator or to start bullying in response. But, this advice while well-meaning doesn’t really work in most adult bullying situations and in particular in situations of Strategic Abrasive Behavior.



Fortunately the professor in this matter decided to work with me and while it wasn’t easy for her she did have a remarkable success.


Myth of Victim

Her situation was painful and she certainly felt victimized by this aggressive person. But being a victim was not helping her find solutions. She needed an action plan that put her back in control of her destiny. If we fought with this aggressor as a victim, then she would never find the self-confidence she needed to win. It was critical that she deal with her fears and confusion and realize that the aggression is a strategy, she is the current target, and she had steps to take on her own behalf.


Myth of Community

We started with the culture of her department. Academica by its very nature is highly competitive with limited resources and many sharks in the water. My client’s attitude was more communal. “How did I know this?” She asked, “Why, why, why is he doing this?” and “Can’t we all just get along?” and “What did I do to deserve this?” Those comments tell me that she believed her workplace was a community and not a hierarchical competitive environment. So, we had to shatter that myth.


Myth of Loyalty

She was agast that her colleagues would be so easily swayed by the rumors. She needed to be reminded that a workplace is a competitive environment and that today’s loyalty is tomorrow’s loyalty if and only if things are going well.


Myth of Withdrawal

Withdrawing and refusing to grapple with his aggression is a very common pattern in these situations. We believe that if we just withdraw that aggression would stop. In fact, withdrawal feeds abrasive behavior.


Myth of Leadership

She believed that talking with the Department Chair would be sufficient to protect her. In reality, going in and complaining about the aggressor’s lies made thing worse for her. She appeared weak and ineffectual. She was a successful professional with a history of accomplishments. No one wanted to see her as needing to be rescued. And no one wanted to choose between her and the aggressor. She was on her own.


Once we were clear on the real situation, any improvements were going to be up to her to accomplish. She agreed to follow a plan we created, then we went into action.


Work on Herself

We had an action plan involving some of the steps outlined in my e-book “Stop Arguing and Start Working: 6 Steps to Being Confident, Calm & Capable During Difficult Conversations at Work” (link) including identifying her fears, how to focus her conversations, distinguishing being “BEing and DOing” and how to listen.


Become Visible

  1. Show up and attend all Department meetings, programs and events. It was critical that she became part of the fabric of the department. The aggressor was counting on her unwillingness to be seen and used every absence as an opportunity to spread more gossip about her.


  1. Call colleagues and talking about her work, possible grants and opportunities to collaborate. This involved setting up coffee and lunch meetings. Those who refused to meet with her were put on a second-tier list. It remained to be seen if they would come around to her side or if they were lost to her.


  1. Meet with her graduate students and staff- cleaning house. We had to figure out who was loyal, who wanted to stay with her and who was already disloyal. We had to listen to the rumors and find out what people believed about her.


  1. Clean House. Anyone who expressed serious misgiving about her or who was found to be participating in the rumor mill was released.


  1. Reconnect with the most important colleagues in her Department and in her field. The rumor mill is a powerful tool and many in Washington DC were concerned about her based on her absences and missed deadlines.


This was a full-time job of action and activity in service of ONE GOAL – to become visible again.


Confront the Rumors with Positive Action

While becoming visible involved moxie confronting the rumors required a subtle strategy of questions and honesty. At each of those calls and meetings she had to discuss her work and her plans but also be open to hearing what others were doing and were thinking. This was important. She couldn’t just defend herself. She had to demonstrate that she was still in the game and could be counted on to work and contribute.

She never directly labeled the bullying behavior as bullying or strategic abrasive behavior or gossip or lies. Never. We never talked about the aggressor. We only discussed her role, her work, her relationships in the context of what her colleagues needed.

Remember, her colleagues were doing their own work and needed allies they could depend upon. The rumors about my client were designed to discredit her to make her seem undependable or disreputable. She had to demonstrate that these rumors were untrue. She inadvertently played into the rumors by withdrawing. It was understandable that she withdrew as she didn’t have the skills or tactics to deal with them but, if she wanted to win, then she was going to have to take action on her own behalf.


Within 3 months her colleagues started to realize that she was indeed in the game and was reliable. Her proactive behavior stood against the rumors and people started to wonder about the aggressor and question his behavior and trustworthiness. While some people stayed loyal to the aggressor, some students returned to her lab, she had several offers to co-lead grants and she regained one of the important committee posts she had lost to the “bully”.

We learned a great deal about her colleagues during this time and she began to choose who to work with and who to avoid based on our findings. Rather than trying to please everyone and be seen by all as a good person, she gave up the final myth, i.e., the Myth of the Good Girl Who Needs to Be Liked. Instead she because a self-confident and self-assured academic in a department where games were played and Strategic Abrasive Bullying exists.