Description of the Abrasive Boss:

  • Clipped speech
  • Little eye contact or ‘drilling’ eye contact; frown appears whenever he or she turns in your direction
  • Aggressive postures such as leaning forward into the other person’s space; stance: legs akimbo, hands on hips; facial frowning with little or no smiling
  • Intensity as a way of being; excitability, volatility with unexpected outbursts
  • Long on demands and short on compliments or verbal rewards; low on social skills usage
  • May take credit for work done by others

If any of this fits you or someone you know in your organization, it’s time to reflect on the impact on your business – whether big or small in size.

A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.

Arnold H. Glasgow

Most of us who have been around for a while have run into the ‘boss’ or supervisor who fits into this category of ‘abrasive’. Others call them the toxic bosses. They are often bright, ambitious, focused, and ‘on’ the majority of the time. They are tough, to the point, demanding, and just simply ‘want the job done’.  These characteristics do not necessarily win them the title of abrasive. The real kicker is that they are short on respect, dish disrespect out liberally and, usually don’t get much respect back – something they often complain about.

These bosses don’t accept ‘excuses’, often have little sympathy when the workload gets too great, and are often known to say ‘figure it out; fix the problem, and just get it done’. Not too much help in that direction. There is often a stable of staff known as ‘the boss’s favorites’, and interpersonal competition is often aggressively pursued, creating serious rifts in any team effort. Interactions with the boss are often high tension, intimidating, and sometimes threatening.  Some bosses fitting into the abrasive category may be somewhat more subtle about the aggressiveness but the zingers and the dismissiveness remain.

Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.

Jean-Paul Sartre

What the abrasive boss often fails to note: The impact of abrasive interactions on employees. You enter the office or building and feel the tension – not a good or excited tension, but a hard, under-the-table tension that seems to hang in the air. It’s quiet in the room but there’s a palpable energy that doesn’t feel good. When people are unhappy, there is little conversation, little networking or problem solving outside of formal meetings or project teams.  Informal gatherings are often used to complain and gripe about the last upset, and politics and gossip are usually cruel and unforgiving.

Honor bespeaks worth. Confidence begets trust. Service brings satisfaction. Cooperation proves the quality of leadership.

James Cash Penney (JC Penney)


Lower morale, decreased output and quality, decreased innovation, and resistance to any thing new or additional work. One clear sign is a high turnover rate. Another high absenteeism. Other frequent signs: meetings are tense, quiet, and not highly interactive with more disagreement than collaboration. disagreements are seldom resolved and interpersonal conflict often escalates.

There is actually a long list of impacts. The abrasive individual, whether boss or employee, creates an environment that results in a poor work environment, and it ends up showing up in the bottom line. Always. If not earlier, then later.

Recognizing that you either have an abrasive boss or employee, or perhaps might unhappily be one, is a call to action. The acknowledgement requires movement, action, and courage. To leave it without dealing with it is to court disaster. Avoidance of conflict in this instance is the wrong decision.

Plan of Action

Next week, we’ll talk about the costs to the business in more specific tangible and non-tangible terms. We’ll talk about things you can do to start changing things up, and potential interventions.

Schedule appointment

Annette Hamm

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