Dealing with an abrasive manager

Identifying and stopping supervisors who bully or harass employees

Bad bosses aren’t a new phenomenon and poor managers probably aren’t going to disappear anytime soon.

But bullying managers can be a health and safety problem. And it is important employers deal with a manager who bullies or harasses the employees they work with before it turns into a stress-related disability claim.

“It has to become so unacceptable that it doesn’t matter who this boss is, it doesn’t matter how much they sell, it doesn’t matter how many business related skills they bring, it has to be treated the same way as if you found out that manager was embezzling from the company,” said Perry Sirota, a clinical and forensic psychologist and management consultant, based in Calgary.
It’s important to know what makes bullies tick.

Abrasive leaders are very concerned about being perceived as being competent, said Laura Crawshaw, founder of The Boss Whispering Institute, based in Portland, Ore.

“And we all are,” she said. “But when they get anxious that perhaps something’s standing in the way of that — somebody’s moving too slowly or things aren’t going the direction they want — they get incredibly anxious and their way of handling that anxiety is to get aggressive,” she said.

Bullying, harassment or just poor management style?

“It’s a very grey area because it’s such a fine line between someone being a strong manager and somebody hopping into being a bully,” said Lauren Bernardi, employment lawyer with Bernardi Human Resource Law, based in Mississauga, Ont.
One of the differences is an aggressive manager tries to get the best out of employees’ performances, whereas a bully tries to push people down by doing things like sabotaging their work, taking credit for the work of others or giving an unwarranted poor  performance review, said Bernardi.

“An aggressive manager might be like ‘you do this and you do it when I tell you to’ but they’re really trying to get people to perform, so that’s a big part of the distinction,” she said.

Strong management style may often be confused for harassment. For example, micro-managing may be an ineffective and poor management style, but it’s not harassment.

“Now if they’re doing it in a disrespectful way, if they’re yelling at people, if they’re being abusive, then yeah, I think it crosses that line, but sometimes we just have bad managers,” she said. “I think one of the things we’re doing is using the term harassment very loosely these days, and it’s devaluing what truly is harassment because people don’t like disciplinary sanctions and they don’t like being managed. So they’re fighting back and saying that’s harassment, when it really isn’t.”

Dealing with the bully

With a performance problem HR or senior management would intervene with verbal counselling and warnings. The same should be done with a conduct problem. The problem with that type of counselling is there will often be a lot of denial from the aggressive manager, said Crawshaw.

When abrasive leaders are confronted about a situation that happened, it’s common to get in a fact battle with the leader, where they are likely to deny they have acted in an aggressive manner, such as yelling at an employee, she said.

“Abrasive individuals, because they’re blind to their own behaviour, can’t turn it around themselves, they don’t know what else to do,” she said.

These individuals need specialized coaching to change their behaviour. Upper management and HR should talk to the person but shouldn’t engage in a he said/she said fact finding mission about whatever the conflict is. Instead, they should  address the underlying issue, said Crawshaw.

The manager should be told, regardless of what happened during a particular incident, people obviously perceive her as aggressive and that is something she should be paying attention to, said Crawshaw.

Workplace bullies can be rehabilitated, said Sirota.

“A vast majority of bullies can be changed,” he said.

He’s helped change bullying behaviour for companies before. In his practice he notices some people just need help to view their own behaviour differently. They need to be taught they can accomplish goals and still be respectful, he said.

“The bully can be told ‘hey buddy, you’re a bully and here’s the deal: you have six months to change and we’re going to give you help to change, we’re going to give you counselling, we’re going to give you courses and in six months if this continues once… you’re going to be fired,’” he said.

When bullies come to him for counselling as a requirement of keeping their job it isn’t always an easy task to work with them, Sirota said.

“And boy… the first couple of appointments they’re pretty angry but after awhile I’ve sent a lot of people back to work who don’t bully anymore,” he said. “A lot of times they just need some kind of help learning ... how to view things differently, how to realize the impact of what they’re doing, how to have greater emotional sensitivity and awareness.”

Motivating upper management to intervene

If a bully is a high performer it can be difficult to get upper management to step in and try to correct his behaviour or start disciplinary action. But this can lead to issues including harassment complaints, especially in provinces such as Ontario, which has legislation allowing for harassment complaints under workplace safety laws.

“There is hesitation to intervene with those high performers,”  said Crawshaw.

But employers shouldn’t think the only alternative to a bully is to talk to the person and cross their fingers the poor behaviour will stop, she said.

“The problem is if you don’t intervene or you just write it off as personality conflict, and that’s hard to do after the fifth personality conflict, you as an employer will be viewed as tacitly condoning this kind of bullying behaviour,” she said.

In situations where management ignores the problem boss, it is likely employees will start feeling like management doesn’t care about them, affecting business culture and breeding resentment. Someone in a position of authority should talk to the abrasive employee and put a plan in place to deal with the issue, said Crawshaw.

“It’s not that difficult to take those steps and it’s risky not to,” she said.

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