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Tangling and Taming the Abrasive Leader


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Tangling and Taming the Abrasive Leader: Ending Unnecessary Roughness and Achieving Balance at Work

There are many abrasive managers and leaders in organizations that impact employee job satisfaction and retention. The common tools and activities employed by HR professionals, consultants and coaches are often not effective. The usual response is to tolerate the abrasive leader’s behavior or conduct because they are typically productive. The alternative is to terminate them.

Neither solution enhances workplace productivity or organizational climate.

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Tangling and Taming the Abrasive Leader

  1. 1. Executive Coaching, Performance and ConductBuilding Better LeadersBy Patrick ReillyResources In ActionDecember 2010 2010 Resources In Action, Inc. 1
  2. 2. Hi P E R Leadership Development Coaching F O R M A Abrasive Leader Coaching N C E LowTypically, we think of executive coaching for high performers. Our hope is that the coaching will take thehigh performers to the next level. Poor performers do not usually receive the benefit of coaching givenit’s an expensive intervention and provides a poor ROI for marginal performers. It is usually not goodbusiness to invest in poor performers given our current tools and ways of thinking.Laura Crawshaw changed the game with her seminal work, Taming the Abrasive Manager. Lauradeveloped a methodology that is very effective in working the folks on the bottom of the scale andfound that they could actually be rehabilitated. Tony Deblauwe produced a similar approach throughhis work in Tangling with Tyrants where he addressed the work system, employee equation, andcommunication process that drives mutually beneficial outcomes.The problem with poor performers in Leadership and the diagram above is that they actually are notpoor performers; they are good performers who demonstrate poor (abrasive) conduct. These peopleactually perform very well (great sales people, product developers or software engineers, etc.) but witha cost. Their conduct has a negative impact on others and themselves. Both Laura and Tony make adistinction between performance and conduct thus creating a different story about both those elementsand the role they play in executive coaching and organization development.On the diagram on page 3, we look at both Conduct and Performance and add some definitions: 2010 Resources In Action, Inc. 2
  3. 3. Performance, Conduct & Executive Coaching Leadership High Performance – Excellence Consistently exceeds goals Executive Coaching Territory P E Abrasive Leader Territory: Leadership Development R How do I stop my conduct from Coaching: How do I take my obscuring my talents & causing F existing talent and conduct to the collateral damage? (Cost of O next level? (Compelling Vision) working with me is too high) R M A N Should be on their way out of Should be on their way out but C the organization may not attract attention like their poor conduct colleagues ELow Performance –Consistently fails toachieve goals Very Abrasive Little or No Abrasiveness CONDUCT Undesirable Conduct - Creates an Desirable Conduct - Creates environment that detracts from the an environment that enhances performance & well-being of self and performance & well-being of others self and others 2010 Resources In Action, Inc. 3
  4. 4. ConductOne key aspect of leadership that we subscribe to is the need for leaders to create a quality workenvironment. Hay Group research indicates that organizational climate can impact organizationalperformance 30%. This provides a compelling business reason for addressing the issue of poor orabrasive conduct. Poor conduct (abrasive conduct) is conduct that creates an environment that detractsfrom the performance and well-being of self and others. We realize that abrasive leaders can and doproduce good performance (goal achievement) but it is probably not what they could achieve if theywere not being abrasive. It is performance with a cost to themselves and others.Our experience is that poor conduct is a simple, easily understood phrase that all business peopleunderstand. However, in creating an appropriate comparative for the diagram of the conduct continuum(page 4) we have chosen to use desirable and undesirable conduct for ease of comparison. We are notaware of an appropriate comparative for poor conduct.PerformanceWe describe high performance as “consistently exceeding goals”. This definition is very black and white.We like this definition because it removes “conduct” from performance so that we can observe anddiscuss both without mixing the elements together.Low performance is “consistently failing to achieve goals”.With those definitions in mind, we developed a new chart that brings both of those distinctions into playas we look at Executive Coaching. This creates a different story than the first chart and one we think ismore reflective of the two discrete coaching options: leadership coaching for high potentials andcoaching for abrasive leaders.The first key observation is that the focus of Executive Coaching is still top performers (anyone abovethe median point with respect to Performance (goal achievement)). Once the general territory of topperformers is defined, the assessment of conduct would determine the coaching approach. Coachingwith those on the undesirable end of the Conduct Continuum would potentially have the followingdistinguishing features.  Possibly greater urgency to the coaching  The coachee’s motivation would probably come more from “negative impact on others” than a “compelling vision”  The goal is more about stopping something – as Laura might say, “stop the attention on your behaviors so people can get on board with your objectives” – as opposed to creating/enhancing something  Organizational sponsorship is essential – the coachee’s boss (or HR Department) should be a strong advocate of the change and be willing to specify consequences for not changing  The feedback would likely be weighted toward describing problematic behaviors rather than extolling the positives  There may be a greater than usual need to develop trust and credibility with the coachee 2010 Resources In Action, Inc. 4
  5. 5.  The coach (internal or external) must play both the “bad cop and good cop” roles successfully. The coach must be unwavering in holding the “coachee’s” feet to the fire about their conduct and its impact on others. At the same time, the coach must be compassionate and display concern and empathy for the “coachee” throughout their time together. Despite needing to present consistent, difficult feedback to the “coachee” the coach must win the confidence of the “coachee” and become a trusted advisor.Let’s look more closely at the application of either Coaching for Abrasive Leaders or TraditionalLeadership coaching or how you decide on approach and applicability.Conduct ContinuumThis is the top half of the chart above on page three, the median to high performing leaders from acrossthe conduct continuum. We didn’t divide this half of the performance continuum as we did with thebottom half (poor performers). The reason is that we thought it would reinforce the perception thatthere are two distinct kinds of coaching for two kinds of executive coaching clients – one kind ofcoaching for abrasive clients and one kind of coaching for non-abrasive clients. Conduct Continuum HighQ Undesirable Conduct - Behaviors thatU create an environment that detractsA from the performance of self and othersNT Desirable Conduct – behaviors thatI create an environment thatT enhances performance of self andY others Low Undesirable Desirable Conduct ConductThis perspective erroneously suggests that conduct is an important issue for only abrasive clients but notfor non-abrasive clients. As we reflect on our executive coaching practices we notice that conduct isactually an important issue in most coaching– which we have traditionally called leadershipdevelopment coaching. This makes sense if we look at conduct along a continuum with the lowest ratedconduct leaders demonstrating a lot of undesirable conduct which reduces and is replaced by desirableconduct as you move along the continuum. With this view, even leaders who are on the right side of thecontinuum have an important percentage of undesirable conduct.So how does this matter? For traditional leadership development coaching conduct does matter. It isalways important for leaders aspiring to get to the next level and to be more effective to make shifts intheir focus, performance and conduct. This is the nexus of traditional leadership development coaching. 2010 Resources In Action, Inc. 5
  6. 6. Work with abrasive leaders is similar yet very different. Abrasive leaders produce results and are highlyvalued for their contributions and performance. Their performance comes with a cost. How abrasiveleaders conduct themselves has significant negative impact on themselves and others and becomes soprominent in people’s experience and perceptions that people start to focus on the conduct of theabrasive leader and forget about the performance. In conducting an “interpersonal cost-benefitanalysis” they begin to wonder if the value produced through the performance outweighs the costsaccrued through the poor conduct. The poor conduct causes people to avoid working with the abrasivemanager, not tackling difficult issues with the abrasive manager or leaving the organization becausethey can no longer work with this individual.An ExampleThis example comes directly from a client organization. . “Mike” is a very talented salesmen and closer.He was recruited from one large technology company to another by his former boss because he haddemonstrated over time the ability to consistently close business and because of his expertise andconnections in an industry vertical that the new company was moving into. There was one problem.Mike, despite his great intelligence and talents, had not adapted well to the new culture. In his oldcompany the culture was one where the boss decided. The new company was more consensus focusedleading him to behave in ways that were not acceptable in the new company.Despite his talents, Mike was running over people with his aggressive “I’m in charge” style and peopledid not want to work with him. I was brought in as a last resort prior to termination.From our initial coaching conversations, “Mike” came to understand how his behavior impacted thebusiness and those with whom he worked. This information was supported with data and a desire tohave Mike realize how he impacted others.After the analysis he was surprised that the information boiled down to one simple idea – talk to ourpeople like you talk to your wife and daughter (which he previously disclosed were critical in his life).This realization shocked him and he began the process of working towards a better communicationprocess.So what does all this mean? Here are some initial thoughts. 1. We recommend that all coaches and leaders look more carefully and make the distinction between conduct and performance so that we can understand and articulate the distinction for both the organization and the client. 2. This model seems like a new and important way to talk about executive coaching with everyone in the territory. 3. We believe that increased awareness of the balance between “the cost of working with” and compelling vision requires an adjustment in coaching methods to assess if their application is matching client need. 4. This process of examining the whole of executive coaching for top performers and the organizational system they operate in has deepened our thinking about our approach to executive coaching, what we are trying to achieve and, most importantly, what we are trying to help our clients achieve. 2010 Resources In Action, Inc. 6
  7. 7. Conduct, holds our attention now more than before. And we should not be surprised that is true.When, in our practices, we are faced daily with the inability of leaders to deliver difficult feedbackeffectively, it should be no surprise that there are lots of conduct issues in the world of leadership.How would they know?For more information on how Resources in Action can help individuals and teams in your companytransform and thrive, please contact Patrick at Order Dr Laura’s book on Amazon: Order Tony’s book on Amazon: Patrick Reilly President, Resources In Action 2010 Resources In Action, Inc. 7