Bullying and Abrasive Leadership Syndrome

by Kristine Berry

Do you manage someone who has “bullish” behaviors or is abrasive? Work with someone who is abrasive? Work for someone who is abrasive? You are not alone. Just say the word “bully,” and most people imagine a childhood playground and stolen lunch money. As traumatic as childhood bullying can be, workplace bullying can have an even more significant impact on the psychological and physical health of the working wounded. It also adversely affects other employees, erodes effectiveness and paralyzes productivity.

What Exactly is Workplace Bullying?
There is no U.S. business standard for “workplace bullying” that can be uniformly applied to all workplace behaviors, as different organizational cultures embrace differing standards of acceptable behavior. The academic literature on workplace mistreatment is fragmented and ranges from low-level workplace incivilities to more aggressive behaviors where intent to harm is clear. Examples of abrasive behavior include, but are not limited to: rudeness, downgrading or demeaning another’s capabilities, public ridicule and disrespect, swearing and shouting or other verbal abuse, failing to control bodily functions, chronic complaining, excessive reassurance-seeking, singling out, ignoring, constant targeted criticism or gossip, violating confidentiality and work interference that sabotages outcome.

Resonant Leader
The term resonant leader was popularized in a 2002 book titled Primal Leadership, written by Daniel Goleman, father of the concept of emotional intelligence, along with emotional intelligence researchers Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee.

In that book, they argued that an organization responds to the energy and enthusiasm of its leader. If the leader expresses a positive attitude, an organization tends to thrive; if a leader spreads negative emotions or aggressive styles, the organization struggles. Boyatzis and McKee go on to describe the resonant leader as one who has developed the emotional intelligence and intra-personal communication channels to connect with and sustain relationships with his or her team in order to be able to manage the emotional content of the organization.

As Boyatzis puts it, “Leaders who can create resonance are people who either intuitively understand or have worked hard to develop emotional intelligence—namely, the competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. In addition to knowing and managing themselves well, emotionally intelligent leaders manage others’ emotions and build strong, trusting relationships.”

A great leader, he says, is not a person, “it’s a relationship.”

Battling the Abrasive Syndrome
Sustaining this level of resonant leadership can be challenging. Added to the normal stress of leadership is a growing list of demands—both internal and external—placed on leaders these days. Trying to meet these demands with more and more time and energy, without attending to themselves, leaders can slip into what I call the “abrasive syndrome.”

The abrasive leader syndrome is a vicious cycle in which the stress of sustaining a leadership role—coupled with providing exceptional patient care and the unexpected problems or crises, starts someone down a path of steamrolling those around them in order to meet financial goals and company objectives. There are numerous physical manifestations, including gastrointestinal disorders, insomnia, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. From a corporate bottom line perspective, abrasive management causes work disruption that can be measured by the following metrics:

  • Attrition of valued employees.
  • Decrease morale and motivation, results in lower productivity.
  • Higher incidence of stress-related illness and substance abuse.
  • Higher turnover rates.
  • Presenteeism- employees focus on the pain of the abrasive behavior- hence, not on duties and responsibilities- paralysis takes over
  • Increase legal actions based on hostile environments.
  • Retaliatory responses such as sabotage – employees and management might take out their frustration and anger with patients and may begin to gossip about the working conditions & post on social media groups
  • Patients’ care will be affected

The Importance of Self-Assessment
Boyatzis and McKee advocate executive coaching—giving it as well as receiving it—and the use of evaluation tools. Specialized executive coaching for abrasive leaders and abrasive team members is an efficient strategy because it tackles the underlying causes of workplace abrasiveness. The specialized coaching method consists of assessment of and feedback to the abrasive leader or abrasive co-worker on the perceptions of his/her abrasive behavior, followed by coaching and periodic retrieval of coworker perceptions, termed “pulse checks.”

Abrasive personalities need to develop insight into why others do not automatically perform as they wish. To do so, they are taught a basic principle derived from evolutionary psychology: The Threat g Anxiety g Defense dynamic. When an organism perceives a threat, it feels fear (anxiety) and defends itself through fight or flight. This concept helps the abrasive leader comprehend the interplay of emotions when interacting with co-workers. Abrasive leaders or abrasives also have to relinquish their unrealistic expectation that “everyone should be just like me.” They need to learn how to monitor and manage their anxiety to gain control over their aggressive defense tactics against perceived threats to their competence. They need to read and accurately interpret how they are perceived by others and develop strategies to achieve their objectives with positive tactics. Demonstrable change in abrasive leader’s or abrasives’ behavior after coaching, in some cases after only four sessions, can be seen. Utilizing this specialized method, 87% of abrasive leaders or abrasives succeeded in bringing their management styles to an acceptable level after being coached.

Leaders and colleagues who resort to bullying disrupt the profitability of an organization. Intervention through a confidential process that respects the concerns of all parties can solve this problem before it escalates into disruptive investigations and hostile relationships.

“Contrary to popular belief,” Boyatzis and McKee write, “it is not change itself that is so hard; what is hard is being honest with ourselves, looking at ourselves with no filters and admitting that we need to change.”

About the Author
Kristine BerryKristine Berry’s career includes being a dental hygienist, dental board examiner, dental operations executive, practice management consultant, educational manager for a global Fortune 500 company and operational director overseeing $23 million of revenue for dental service organizations. She is a senior consultant for Dental Management Innovations, LLC specializing in enhancing group practices. If you have a sticky situation at work, she invites you to contact her via kristine@dmidental.com

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