Lynn Harrison, PhD
This is a story about how coaching based on integral leadership concepts helped bring about the successful transformation of a leader formerly viewed by coworkers as highly abrasive. For deep and sustained change to occur, the work needed to explore not only externally visible behaviors and practices, but the powerful inner values, attitudes, and beliefs held by the individual and the organization. In the end, the results were indeed impressive.
Here is the story
During my 20 years as an executive coach, I have had the privilege of working closely with many exceptionally bright, talented leaders, some of whom would be described as “brilliant, but abrasive”. Although they could be counted on to get the job done, they often left a trail of destruction in the workplace. Prone to impatience, overreaction, micromanaging, condescension, and even public humiliation of colleagues, they caused others much distress, ultimately impacting organizational performance.
The interesting thing was that often these individuals had little idea about how much damage they were causing around them. In their view, the main priority was getting the job done, whatever that took. They sometimes recognized that they were overly harsh with people, but then rationalized that it was all in the effort to achieve great results. For some of these individuals, receiving a 360 feedback report that indicated that coworkers feared them, or even hated them, was devastating. Their intention was not to cause harm, but rather to carry out what they saw as their responsibility as a leader – to attain the targets (usually numbers) that would keep competitors at bay, make shareholders happy, or sometimes, allow the company to stay afloat.
One of my clients, Sharon (not her real name), was a classic example of the abrasive leader. Beloved by customers because of her amazing work ethic, her ability to deliver top quality work, and her exceptional attention to detail, she was a super-star in the company, promoted year after year. However, as time went on and the demands of the job increased, Sharon’s behavior in the workplace became somewhat erratic. Frustrated by the slowness of coworkers to grasp her ideas, or produce results, she would fly off the handle, insulting a colleague, slamming the door of her office, or cutting people off with an intimidating glare. Her direct reports became anxious in her presence, never quite sure about her mood that day, and what might set her off. Many were reluctant to talk to her about problems they were having with their work, as they did not want to experience her immediate displeasure, or have her assess them as incompetent. When she asked people for their ideas, they would be hesitant to speak up, having observed others’ efforts to contribute be dismissed as foolish, or ignored altogether. Written reports often came back covered in so much red ink that employees felt humiliated.
While coworkers were feeling disrespected and undervalued, the leader, for her part, was feeling frustrated that she had such poor and lazy talent on her team. She wondered why she had to do so much herself, and why people couldn’t step up to deliver the kind of work she did. By the time she corrected everyone’s work, she could have done it all herself. Even her most senior staff members seem to lack confidence and good ideas, so she ended up handling most of the key clients. It seemed that the more her people pulled back, the more she increased her workload – and her intensity. The atmosphere in the department became very tense.
This unhealthy cycle eventually started to impact not just Sharon’s work group, but the other teams in the office. Staff from her area complained about their boss, and began to seek work in other departments. Even Sharon’s peers expressed irritation with her prickly behavior. This came to attention of the company president, who became concerned that good people would want to leave the firm.
Sharon was asked to work with an executive coach, who could help her with her leadership. As someone who had experience with abrasive leaders, I was introduced as a possible partner for her.
At first, Sharon was not enamored with the idea of coaching. After all, her track record in the company was stellar, and she in fact had just received an award for leading a highly successful project. Since starting at the firm in her early twenties, she had done nothing but excel, and had been recognized accordingly.
The 360 feedback that Sharon received as part of the coaching confirmed that although she was highly regarded for her technical skills – something valued by clients – she was deeply lacking in terms of leadership. Colleagues and direct reports alike described her as intense, aggressive, and insensitive to the feelings of others. She tended to operate as a lone wolf, seemingly uninterested in teamwork. At times she would be curt and short of patience. She devoted little time to mentoring employees, and appeared to view one-on-one meetings as an interruption of her work. It seemed that over the years Sharon had not learned to be a leader at all, but rather a superb individual contributor, who somehow found herself in charge of a group of people.
Like many of the abrasive executives I have coached (and interviewed for my dissertation), Sharon felt deep shame when she learned that she was so poorly regarded as a manager. In truth, she had little idea about what it meant to lead. Each time she had been tapped on the shoulder for a promotion, she had simply stepped up to the next level, without any preparation for the new role. So, she did what she did that made her successful in the previous position; she worked hard to deliver results and kept her clients happy. However, as her level of responsibility grew in the company, she had even more work to manage, and things became untenable.
On the positive side, Sharon was goal-oriented and committed to being successful in her career. As much as the feedback and coaching intervention initially felt like a setback, she began to realize that if she set an objective to become a better leader, she could avoid the career failure that otherwise might beset her. She knew how to work hard and get things done; now she needed to learn how to do that with or through other people.
What was also positive was that Sharon had a boss who believed that she could change. Her manager was unwilling to allow the dysfunctional leadership pattern to continue, and wanted to find a solution. Even though an external coach was hired, the boss was prepared to provide ongoing feedback and support on a regular basis. He realized that all the promotions and awards given to Sharon over the years had undoubtedly contributed to her belief that what she was doing was somehow working.
This level of accountability was as important to the coaching process as Sharon’s willingness to be coached. Trying to bring about behavioral change in an organizational system that asks for one thing but rewards another is a recipe for failure. Sometimes the problem is too far-gone; that is, the pattern has been openly or tacitly endorsed for so many years that people have lost hope of any change. In this case, the company leader was willing to look at the corporation’s historical practices, recognize the negative impact, and take responsibility for being part of the problem.
An Inside-Out Approach
In keeping with integral leadership concepts, the coaching addressed not just the visible or external behaviors of the leader, but what was occurring on the inside. In many ways, initiating the coaching was in itself a step toward disrupting the inner pattern, both at the system and individual level. To admit that some kind of change is needed starts the process of questioning what is, or what has been. In the case of the individual, this can mean noticing, for example, that performance at the “Achiever” or “Expert” level is no longer enough, or even desirable. At the level of the corporate culture, it can mean questioning the kinds of practices that the system has been tolerating, or even encouraging, perhaps without realizing the downstream consequences.
In the beginning, the coaching with Sharon focused on her “inside game”; that is, it aimed at increasing her level of self-understanding and personal drives. This included reflecting on what leadership actually meant to her, determining how she wanted to be experienced, and deciding whether she really wanted to be a leader of people. It also involved exploring the fears, assumptions, and beliefs that underlay her behavior. For example, even though she had received many accolades and had been promoted to executive, Sharon still harbored the concern that people might still see her as the young woman who once occupied a clerical position, that individual who got promoted despite her limited education. She admitted that she often felt like an imposter, and that it would soon be evident that her promotion to a senior leadership level was a big mistake. This lack of confidence led to over-managing others, over-controlling output, and constant anxiety about whether all the work submitted by her area was flawless.
The need to perform perfectly also caused Sharon to push herself relentlessly. She had little tolerance for mistakes or missteps in herself, or others. When she would snarl at a coworker, she would sometimes realize that she had been unduly unpleasant and feel some remorse, but would then convince herself that the person deserved to be reprimanded. She admitted that often she simply lacked the time or inclination to show others how to perform the tasks as desired.
Unfortunately, there was a toll that came with this kind of intense, driven behavior, and Sharon began to see that when she lost patience, barked at coworkers, or cut people off, they pulled away from her. With the help of coaching and the 360 feedback, she came to realize that her abrasiveness actually reduced the quality of people’s work. Coworkers felt so nervous in her presence that they shut down, were reluctant to express their ideas, and lost their creativity. Feeling threatened, they took flight or froze. Few were willing to fight with a senior, abrasive boss. No wonder so much was resting on her shoulders.
While this inner awareness was growing, the coaching also addressed Sharon’s “outside” skills. These were the competencies that support effective leadership, such as the ability to build a team, to develop a shared vision, to collaborate with others, and to hold difficult conversations. They included empathy, the capacity to manage emotion-laden situations, and the ability to assert one’s point of view, while being open to that of others. These complex, high-level interpersonal capabilities do not come naturally to many leaders. As is often the case, Sharon was not promoted because of her skillful application of emotional intelligence, or her ability to inspire people to follow her. These were areas that needed further development, and they would not change overnight.
Externally, on a systems level, the coaching highlighted the need for processes that would support leadership development in the company. These included regular, candid feedback for managers, an orientation program for new leaders, the creation of selection criteria for leadership positions, and employee engagement surveys. Until this point, the company had not paid much attention to leadership and its impact on the organization’s success.
On the interior side, the company also had to assess its willingness to take a stand for its espoused values. Did it really want to be an employer of choice? Was respect in the workplace truly important? Did the organization’s reward and recognition system include the treatment of staff, or just results for the client and company’s bottom-line?
What is interesting about the story of Sharon is that she was in many ways a product of her company culture. As a hardworking young person who demonstrated a drive to succeed, she was chosen and shaped for a management role. Without any orientation to the position or clear expectations about what it means to lead, she relied on what had made her successful to date, and continued to do more of that. Unfortunately, however, the skills of the individual contributor are not the same as those of a leader. But, without feedback or guidance to the contrary, how would one know?
Leading effectively requires that managers grow on the inside and the outside. It requires that their companies evolve their collective consciousness as well, changing processes, policies, and beliefs to support the kind of culture to which they aspire. At the end of the day, people will engage in behavior that is rewarded. We must be attentive to the messages we provide, overt and inadvertent, and take action to terminate behaviors that are ultimately unhealthy.
In the case of Sharon, the story had a happy ending for both the company and the leader. Her boss, as part of the coaching process, saw the need to take action to revise company leadership practices and beliefs. Sharon, motivated to be successful as a manager, shifted her mental models and assumptions about leading, and began engaging in new behaviors. This is not to say that it was an easy road – as with any transformation, there were some bumps along the way. However, with a determined leader, a supportive boss, a committed coach, and a system open to change, things eventually turned around.
For Sharon the transformation occurred on several levels. Not only did she learn to be more approachable and calm at work, she began to live her life with less intensity. She took time to be self-nurturing and built relationships inside and outside the office. She put the development of her people and her team as a priority and began to enjoy that part of her role. As she shared the work load with others, she had more time to be strategic and thoughtful about her impact as a leader. She became an advocate for professional development in the company, including the need for conscious leadership.
Sharon, a leader once feared and disliked, went from being abrasive to impressive.
About the Author
Lynn Harrison is an executive coach and leadership consultant based in Vancouver, Canada. Her firm, Black Tusk Leadership, specializes in working with leaders to help raise their level of consciousness, creating healthy and productive workplaces. Lynn’s dissertation (2014) focused on abrasive leadership, taking a systems-oriented approach to the topic.
Harrison, L. (2014). Perfect storm: Exploring the phenomenon of abrasive leadership. Doctoral Dissertation, Saybrook University. Retrieved from
Great to see you sharing your research Lynn. Your contribution is so important to understanding the systems dynamics at play when leaders are involved in creating abusive workplace situations.