Executive Coaching Philadelphia: Working with Abrasive Leaders


Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love…. except when you have abrasive executives on your team.  What’s the best way to handle them and work effectively with them?  Our Executive Coaches are often brought in to tame these big Philadelphia personalities (when they’re interested in being tamed, of course) but what can you do in the meantime?

If you’re their direct report:

As the direct report to an abrasive leader, you likely get the brunt of their bad behavior.  It’s a tough spot to be in.  The key to surviving and thriving under this leader is to never take things personally.  This is often challenging if their comments are directed at you or your performance.  Even then, you must not take the delivery style personally.

Abrasive personalities often just know no other way of operating.  That’s their issue.  You must listen to them for the gold in their message, and throw out the wrapping paper of their harsh delivery.  Abrasive leaders are often just pushing for results.  If you can take their direction and ignore the way in which they give it, they will see that you are getting the results they crave and they may lighten their tone.  If you need to pretend they have a disease that twists their delivery into a nasty one when they speak, do that.

If you have their trusted ear, you might offer some gentle feedback.  This can be scary for people on both sides of the conversation, so I encourage you to do it gently and at a time when they are not in the middle of barking a command.  Make an appointment, find a quiet moment and make it clear that you are looking to improve your own effectiveness (something they value and in which they have a stake.)  Take responsibility for things on your side of the relationship. “You’re harsh and it’s not working for me” is not the way to go; it will simply make them defensive and righteous.  Instead, offer something like: “I so appreciate your feedback and training.  I’m looking to do the best job possible and I notice that when we’re under deadline your voice raises, which makes me uncomfortable and much less efficient.  I don’t think is what you want.  What can I do so that we can keep the office a bit calmer during those times?”  The key phrase here is what can I do; it takes the burden off them, but still delivers the message that those moments aren’t working.

Of course, you are not to tolerate abuse.  If that’s the case, see your HR department for support.

If you’re their peer:

If you’re the peer of an abrasive executive, you can have a large impact.  While you probably don’t want to tell this exec how to run their department, you can approach through more of a ‘best practices’ collegial conversation.  Your job is to address this person’s behavior for the good of the company, even if it doesn’t impact you directly.  Casual conversations often works well: either offering alternative solutions to their behavior when possible (“you know, I’ve found that my own direct reports are much more responsive to …”) and offering some understanding of their challenges, without condoning their behavior.  Often the abrasive leader just needs to be reassured that they and their work are accepted and appreciated; a sentiment you can offer as peer.

If you’re their supervisor:

If you’re the supervisor of a leader with abrasive traits, you may not even know it because the exec may be conciliatory to you while communicating harshly with their direct reports.  But if you’re in touch with your department, you are keenly aware of the impact this exec is having on your team, even if they don’t behave that way to you personally.

The most important step for you to take is to have a frank, open, face to face conversation with this person and clearly lay out the expectations you have for their style of communication and leadership.  Be specific.  Offer examples of unacceptable behavior and demonstrate the impact on the team.  Be clear that these behaviors are unacceptable and be clear about the consequences.  You don’t need to threaten their job (that will likely just make them defensive) but you do want to help them understand that they are not getting what they want in the long term even if their tactics are effective in the short term.  You must also offer solutions: give examples of better ways to address situations.  It’s possible they just don’t see other options.

As your formerly abrasive exec starts to practice new skills, be sure to offer positive feedback when you witness them behaving in new ways.  “don’t do X” is never as helpful as “when you did Y yesterday, that’s the type of new approach we were talking about.  Good work.”

Of course, you can always call for back-up and bring in one of our Philadelphia area Executive Coaches to offer your abrasive exec an outside, objective ear.  That brings us to:

If you’re their Executive Coach:

As the coach, our job is to get at the underlying causes of the abrasive behavior and help the client shift to some new behaviors.  It’s most important not to simply give them alternatives (“say thank you more often”) because that is not sustainable for them.  Our role is to shift the underlying beliefs they have that lead to this behavior.  Are they afraid they are not respected?  Do they think their current behavior is the only way people will listen?  Or are they completely unaware that their behavior, tone or communication style may come across poorly?

Those concerns or beliefs are not something they are likely discussing with their supervisor or anyone in the workplace.  Having a confidential conversation with their Executive Coach is the place to explore these issues and create some alternatives that result in different behavior.  Once the underlying beliefs are shifted, the behaviors shift naturally, easily and are maintained over a long period of time.

For more information on our work with abrasive executives in Philadelphia or elsewhere, please contact us.