Connecting with Abrasive Leaders

Guest post from Cheryl
A. Bond,
Ed.D., SPHR:

Every organization has its share of leaders, technical
geniuses or future leaders who lack social skills and self-awareness.  They are perceived as bullies, jerks, prima
donnas, and worse.  Most people don’t
want to work for them or with them, but their behavior is rarely addressed
directly or effectively. 

Referred to as “high maintenance,” they’re the 20% that take
up 80% of their managers’ time.  Most of
that time is spent listening to complaints about them and hoping they haven’t
crossed the line into legally actionable offenses.  There are many reasons why these leaders are
not confronted directly – key customer/client contacts, technical expertise,
political connections, or powerful mentors.  
No one wants to risk upsetting them and suffering the fallout.  So they’re sent off to expensive “charm
school” training programs in hopes that they will be miraculously transformed,
shuffled off to a different division, or given a “special” assignment.

Meanwhile, their behavior has consequences:
employee morale, retaliation, passive aggression, attrition
levels of stress and stress related illnesses and absenteeism
loss of creativity and innovation
   Fearful work environments in
which  people hide mistakes, point
fingers and avoid even low risk actions
of investment in high potentials who derail and fail
Ultimately, the possibility of lawsuits due to
hostile work environment or discriminatory behavior accusations

We must find a way to engage these leaders in a meaningful
dialog to help them understand their behavior and its impact on others.  Success lies in getting and maintaining
rapport with them; to keep emotions in check and not get drawn in to a
defensive, unproductive spiral.  More
than a decade ago, I learned a set of simple principles that describe how the
human operating system works, what’s behind our experience of life in the
moment. This understanding, referred to as State of Mind or the 3 Principles,
is so empowering, it gives me the confidence to make this statement:

It is possible to get rapport with any person under any
circumstances – and to sustain that rapport over time.

The fact that we create our
experience of life through our thinking and the unlimited potential for new
thought allows me to see myself and others from a different perspective.  It’s a perspective that significantly changes
the interpersonal dynamic.  In the
paragraphs that follow, I’ll share my thoughts on getting rapport and ask you
to reflect on a conversation you’ve been avoiding or one that didn’t go well in
hopes that you’ll have some insights of your own.

Intent. This
insight snuck up on me one day when I was facilitating a teambuilding
session.  The program team was highly
dysfunctional and everyone had his or her own ideas about the source of the
problems – the technical challenges, the difficult customer, the bureaucracy of
the large company, procurement issues. (Nothing about rapport or
relationships.)  The feeling in the room
was terrible.  For just a minute I wasn’t
hearing the content of what they were saying, and it hit me – they don’t trust
or respect each another.  I knew addressing
that was job one.  If they didn’t get
rapport as a team, they would fail.  Now
I could help them put energy in the right direction – seeing the human factors of
their team.

 Separate Realities.  Each one of us is creating our experience of
life through our thinking from the inside – out.  Two people in the same meeting or movie can
be having an entirely different experience because they see it through their
personal thinking.  It’s helped me over
the years to see that everyone is doing the best they can based on how they see
the world.  We believe our thinking –
it’s our truth.  It’s thought, by the
way, that’s creating our emotional state, not the circumstances.  Seeing separate realities in the moment,
helps me keep from taking things personally. 
I’m more curious about others’ reactions and less judgmental and
defensive.  That changes the dynamic.

Potential for
.  We have an unlimited
potential for new thought.  Everyone.  When we have new thinking our experience has
to change; our perceptions, our emotions, it can all shift in an instant.  And there is nothing to do.  We cannot stop new thinking from coming to
us.  It’s innate.  All we have to do is be open to the
possibility.  This brings incredible hope
to any situation.  It’s why I am
confident that it’s possible to get rapport with any person in any

My secret for coaching abrasive leaders is simple; I don’t
see them as their behavior.  I see them
as people who are doing the best they can based on how they see the world, what
makes sense to them.  I honestly want to
know what makes sense to them. There’s a feeling to that attitude that can’t be
faked or modeled with a technique. That feeling paves the way for a connection,
a level of engagement that is the basis of rapport.  Once we have rapport, it’s easy to have the
honest dialog that is necessary to address their behavior and the effect it has
on others.

One of my favorite coaching relationships started when a
technical director flew into my office, slammed himself into a chair and said,
“I don’t know why I have to go to ‘be
a better person school’ when it’s the other incompetent a-holes who are causing
the problems.”  I honestly thought he was
funny, and it was the beginning of a wonderful relationship and a life-changing
chapter in his life.  Less than a year
later, he was physically healthier, happier, and taking on new responsibilities
mentoring others.

An understanding of the 3 Principles is also the foundation for
sustainable behavior change.  But that’s
a story for another time….
About the author:
Cheryl Bond is an accomplished learning and organizational
development professional with experience in a variety of corporate cultures
including technology, legal, insurance, financial services and 14 years at BAE
Systems one of the world’s largest defense and security providers. Essential Resilience provides training,
seminars, and coaching to help people maintain well-being and energy under
pressure, embrace new challenges, interact with others more effectively and
ultimately improve organizational performance. 
Visit her website at or e-mail