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A New Way to Look at Abrasive Leaders: How Can Neuroscience Help?

My main career focus has always been difficult change (different angles, not just the abrasive type) but this territory is so misleading and important that it's worth dedicated attention.

I recently came across a great article by Jordan Goldrich (find it here) and thought it might be best to share specific situations that may help make some critical points...

1. A COO in a client organization was put by his CEO in an impossible situation so that the CEO wouldn't have to hold people accountable himself. This COO was the only one pushing others on the senior leadership team to "align with the real world" and with corporate policies, and was really the only strong pillar standing when it came to delivering. He was also abrasive, dismissive, controlling, and to a degree even vindictive.

2. It is not uncommon for teams to tag someone as "problematic" because that person is unlike them, or because that person is too "expressive" and passionate about results. When such an individual feels unheard (which is often a natural by-product in such a situation) it often leads to them to feel frustrated and as they express their frustration, they can seem "difficult".

  • First point: Sometimes abrasive leaders are put in impossible positions and sometimes leaders who are not abrasive are put in impossible situations which force them to be unpleasant and may lead to being seen by others as abrasive. It's always super important to take the time to see the whole picture and address the full complexity of the situation.

3. Working with senior military officers who moved into civilian careers taught me that some leaders are appreciated in one environment but not necessarily in another. Some of these leaders, while highly respected and appreciated in their military career, were considered harsh and yes, abrasive, in "civilian" corporations. The interesting thing was that although they all shared the same "markers" of their "culture of origin", some were able to adjust, learn, and find the way to harness their amazing talents in the corporate world, and other could not, or were not willing to change.

  • Second point: It isn't how direct, dismissive, and controlling one is that makes them abrasive - it's how open they are to hearing the experience of others, to being vulnerable, how willing they are to explore areas of their behavior that may require change, and whether or not they are open to working on learning and adjusting.

In my experience from years of working with a wide range of difficult change situations, reality puts us in all kinds of complex circumstances and not everything that looks abrasive is in fact abrasive. It can get tricky and we really should walk this territory cautiously...

How Can Neuroscience Help?

There are Neuroscience principles that help us support these individuals:

- Test if they are genuinely abrasive (i.e. unwilling to change), simply stuck and in need of support, or if it's actually those who tag them as "difficult" who need to change.

- Recognize the specific variety of visible and invisible resistance responses that may be blocking them.

- Support them to unlearn hard-wired patterns.

- And finally, create a healthy accountability structure with them, to ensure they don't kick the change out as soon as it becomes uncomfortable (and it most likely will!).

How does all of this sit with you?

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