Abrasive leaders often ‘irreplaceable’

But bad behaviour leads to stress, turnover, lowered performance: Survey
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/23/2012

Debora Humeniuk once had a particularly abrasive leader who made her work life unbearable. Despite doing everything she could to please him, she was always on his bad side and, in the end, Humeniuk lost her job.

“It was emotionally and physically abusive, and it was awful to go through,” said the human resource service manager at the Regina Inn Hotel and Conference Centre.

Humeniuk found herself another job but again faced an abrasive leader, so she left.

“It can really do a number on your self-esteem, so that you start to believe the negative things they throw at you and you lose your sense of self and who you are as a person,” she said. “It’s really not worth staying for that kind of person.”

When it comes to abrasive leaders, lower employee retention is one of the main impacts, according to 68 per cent of 257 respondents to a survey conducted by Canadian HR Reporter. Increased stress (86 per cent) and decreased team performance (73 per cent) round out the top three.

It’s like having an alcoholic parent who has good days and bad days, said Zakeana Reid, senior manager of HR strategic initiatives at engineering firm Morrison Hershfield in Calgary.

“It’s just that anxiety of never knowing what today’s going to be and always having to adapt your behaviour to their moods.”

There is definitely more stress at work and employees with an abrasive leader often don’t want to come to work and if they do, it’s with a sense of dread, said Fatima Mirza, director of HR at community centre MacDonald Island Park in Fort McMurray, Alta., which has about 300 workers.

“You’re not going to get the full potential out of the employee — the dedication wanes after a point.”

But dealing with abrasive leaders is no easy task, as many possess unique business knowledge and are considered irreplaceable, or are deemed a low priority compared to more pressing business issues, according to 68 per cent of respondents in both cases.

But if an abrasive leader does generate business results, it’s a matter of removing them from situations where they impact groups of people, said Reid.

“You can’t have someone in charge of three-quarters of the company who makes people feel like crap.”

HR should consider sending the person for training around sensitivity and how to manage with discipline and dignity, said Humeniuk, whose company has about 150 workers.

“Sometimes you put people in positions and, OK, they’re great at the numbers thing but really have no people skills at all,” she said. “Accepting it and allowing it to go on in your organization is an absolute disaster.”

Anybody can be replaced, said Mirza.

“Skill sets are very important, especially in today’s market... But, at the same time, I don’t think any person in any company is indispensable.”

Company culture definitely impacts how leaders are cultivated and employees are treated, she said.

“If a company has sort of an abrasive leadership or management team and everyone has an A-type personality, obviously there’s not going to be much incentive to take action against any of them. But if a company has that team spirit and there’s definitely that respect in there and it’s a really important value for the company, then I don’t think a whole lot of people will stand for something that’s abrasive.”

So, what solutions are effective in eliminating abrasive conduct? Not surprisingly, terminating an employee (57 per cent) came out on top, found the survey.

But this has larger-level operational considerations, said Reid, whose company has 700 Canadian employees. For example, if an important leader is let go, he might start up a competing business.

“That is a very real concern,” she said.

Also effective in dealing with a bad apple is performance feedback from the abrasive leader’s manager (43 per cent), progressive discipline (40 per cent), executive coaching (38 per cent) and 360-degree feedback (36 per cent), found the Canadian HR Reporter survey.

Looking at today’s tight job market, it’s preferable to have the abrasive person understand and change his behaviour, instead of terminating him, said Humeniuk.

“And what a joy to have that person realize it — it could impact their personal life too,” she said. “To me, it’s better that way than it is going and terminating an individual who’s going to another company and (will) do the same thing again.”

Progressive discipline can be effective with people who have inadvertent bad behaviour, said Reid, citing one boss accused of playing favourites who was shocked and hurt by the suggestion.

“In rare cases, people are unaware that they may be seen as a little too larger than life.”

But research has shown feedback only works if the person understands what you’re talking about, said talent development and career coach Tamara Parris in Toronto.

“For a lot of these leaders, they’re in the dark, there’s a blind spot about how they’re impacting people around them. So, unless you’re giving very detailed feedback that’s going to help the person pull back and identify exactly what they’re doing, they’re not going to understand what you’re talking about. And most people in management or senior leadership do not give feedback in that way — they’re very vague or leave it open.”

As for the direct and indirect costs of abrasive behaviour, the category of lower employee retention, severance costs, retraining costs and outplacement costs came out on top, with 30 per cent of survey respondents saying these cost $75,000 or more.

Absenteeism, stress leaves and health-care costs, ranging from $5,000 to $20,000, were cited by 23 per cent, followed by lost management and HR time (22 per cent).

However, many respondents said they were not sure of the costs when it came to issues such as lower productivity, decreased performance, lost clients or business, or harassment complaints.

Absenteeism, presenteeism and stress-related leaves are definitely among the costs, said Reid. However, it’s hard to put dollar values around that and draw a direct causal relationship, which would make most people hesitate to draw that connection, she said.

Turnover cost is certainly an issue, said Humeniuk, citing one leader who went through six employees in seven months.

“It’s frustrating from the end of human resources and also the individuals around them in that work unit who have to progress and who have to carry the load.”

Mirza’s company tends to look more at the soft skills and the ones that are difficult to measure, she said.

“If we actually brought out what, in reality, the dollars, the numbers are for this kind of behaviour, there’d probably be more action on it.”


More on abrasive leaders

Sharone Bar-David, president of Bar-David Consulting in Toronto, co-authored the survey with

Canadian HR Reporter

. To read her in-depth analysis of what the survey results mean, see page 23 of this issue. She will also be presenting the survey results on Nov. 7 at a Strategic Capability Network session in Toronto. For more information on attending that event, visit



By the numbers

Abrasive leader survey charts

In September, Canadian HR Reporter conducted a survey of 257 readers on abrasive leadership. Here’s a look at some of the results. To download a free copy, visit www.hrreporter.com/abrasive-leaders.

In the first part of the survey, respondents were asked to think of one specific abrasive leader. Here are some stats on that leader:

Gender of abrasive leader

  • Male:  60.2%
  • Female: 39.8 %

Abrasive leader’s level at the organization

  • CEO/president: 21.4%
  • Senior executive: 31.5%
  • Director or equivalent: 23%
  • Middle manager: 16.9%
  • Supervisor/team leader: 6.5%
  • Project manager: 0.8%

In the second part of the survey, respondents were asked about the behaviour of all abrasive managers they had encountered. Here are the results:

Top 5 problems tied to abrasive leaders’ behaviour
Per cent saying impact was “quite a bit” or “extreme”

  • Increased stress: 86.4%
  • Decreased team performance: 72.7%
  • Lower employee retention: 68.5%
  • Decreased individual performance: 62%
  • Lost management time: 61.2%

Top 5 solutions in addressing abrasive leaders
Per cent saying tactic was “somewhat” or “highly” effective

  • Termination of employment: 57%
  • Performance feedback from abrasive leader's manager: 42.7%
  • Progressive discipline: 39.7%
  • Executive coaching: 38.3%
  • 360-degree feedback: 36.2%

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