Have an employee whose words or body language could best be described as excessively rude? Someone who describes people and their actions as “stupid” or “idiotic”? An employee whose body language screams frustration like a siren ringing right next to your ear?

Employees who are abrasive tend to emit their frustrations in a loud, boorish, and ill-mannered way. Their actions distract and lead to conflict, and conflict takes you away from your strategic duties as a leader. Here’s what to do to reign in this behavior.

#1  Learn how to identify it.

While what’s rude is subjective, abrasive behavior you most likely can see from yards away or hear through conference room windows and doors; it’s easy to spot. For example, rolling your eyes and commenting that a peer’s idea is “half baked” is impolite and unproductive. Should you speak to this employee and coach him to express his opinion in a collaborative way? Yes. Is it an emergency? No. Now, consider this example: “What an stupid idea! Only an idiot would come up with that! Wow. Whew.” (I will add body language during filming) That’s harsh and absolutely should not be tolerated as daily behavior. Emergency? Yes. Especially because abrasive behavior isn’t spotted; it’s consistent. It’s part of an employee’s learned conduct.

#2   Sit down 1:1 and talk about it. Coach the employee.

This may be a difficult, charged conversation, but it must happen and happen fast. Prepare by gathering the following: specifics of what the employee has said and to whom (list as many as you can), examples of how his body language, and illustrations of how his abrasive behavior have unconstructively affected people and projects. During the conversation, you need to share these points and what he needs to do or say instead and ask for commitment to change. And if you want to hand this off to HR, you’re being a coward. It’s perfectly fine to solicit their advice, but don’t shove this problem off your plate.

#3  Pay attention to the rest of your team.

In addition to coaching your abrasive team member, you must place energy on those affected by the offender. Skilled leaders also coach those individuals. They boost the morale of those who have been rubbed the wrong way by providing specific, genuine feedback. And, in a discreet manner, leaders inform team members and peers that they are stepping up to reigning in the asshole-like behavior. For example, they say something like,  “I understand Marianne’s behavior added tension to the meeting in an inappropriate way and that you were upset. I don’t feel what she did was right or justified. I’m talking with her about it. And one of the things I may ask you to do is provide her with direct feedback.”

Abrasive words and body language cause those on the receiving end to experience an immediate, visceral and emotional reaction. People feel belittled, ridiculed, disparaged. Those emotions take time to heal, perhaps as much time as necessary for the jerk to consistently change his behavior. As a leader, be patient but very persistent. Otherwise, you’ll begin to lose employees – and the jerks are usually some of the last to go on their own.


© Leila Bulling Towne 2010

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