Abrasiveness: the new competitive advantage

© Marija Piliponyte - Fotolia.com
© Marija Piliponyte - Fotolia.com

Everyone is bemoaning bad bosses these days—the subject of a wave of recent books (including the elegantly titled My Boss is a Sh*thead), not to mention movies and TV shows.

Within the wide spectrum of bad boss behaviors two characteristics are frequently reported: "abrasiveness" and "arrogance." Of course these descriptions are subject to interpretation, so you could argue that they exist in the mind of the beholder. But when nearly all beholders agree that a given leader is abrasive and arrogant, that’s not a good thing, right?

But wait! Maybe it is—at least according to a Boston Globe op-ed columnist, who defended the brusque and bullying management style of economist Lawrence Summers. (Summers, the controversial former President of Harvard U., was originally on President Obama’s short list of candidates for the all-important Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve System but took his name off the list following a hailstorm of criticism about his blunt management style.)

The columnist, Jennifer Graham, conceded Summers was arrogant, but brushed it aside, quoting Ayn Rand to make the jaw-dropping claim that all that mattered was “clear, hard, radiant competence.” (Glad we straightened that out.)

But of course I had to respond. My issue wasn’t Larry Summers per se, but whether we should tolerate contumely and gracelessness in our leaders. I sent the following letter to the Globe:

Jennifer Graham’s op-ed column on 9/23/13 defending Larry Summers’ “blustery” manner was a head scratcher. She seems to be saying that: (1) the only alternative to Summers’ boorishness is back-slapping “glad-handing”; (2) “nicer people” are just “trying to sell something”: and (3) Summers would be demonstrating “inauthenticity” by seeking to temper his “brusque behavior.” Talk about a straw man argument!

Even more astonishing is her assertion that “a certain brusqueness…suggests a person of serious mind and intent.”

Where to begin? Well, as a consultant who has counseled executives for decades in these issues, I applaud businesses that reject leaders who lack the self-control to restrain their impulsive reactions and who lack the imagination to find ways to address colleagues WITHOUT INSULTING THEM. (Is that too high a bar?) The alternate to boorish behavior is not “glad-handing” but respect for others. If leaders lack the discipline—and humility—to curb their outward disdain for people they disagree with, it’s a CHARACTER issue—which needs to be addressed.

I’ve never seen Mr. Summers in action, but if his behavior fits the descriptions above, it should disqualify him for the position of Federal Reserve Chairman—which, like most high profile jobs, requires large measures of tact and diplomacy. In twenty-first-century business, “clear, hard, radiant competence” is wholly insufficient if leaders can’t manage their emotions.

One additional point: since when does Ayn Rand qualify as an expert on leadership?

Jennifer Graham’s entire column can be read here. It’s actually a light and amusing read—and she’s clearly a clever writer whose columns I often enjoy—but there’s an absence of logic here.

Having to cope with abrasive, arrogant, bullying managers and leaders—the classic “bad boss”—is one reason why two million US workers quit their jobs every month, with significant costs to their companies as well as to the economy as a whole. These numbers are only likely to go up once the economy turns around and the job market improves.

This is not to stifle creative abrasion—a term coined by Jerry Hirshberg, the founder of Nissan Design, in his book The Creative Priority. This is the friction of oppositional viewpoints that can produce sparks of creativity. In my work with teams I encourage the harnessing of energy released by this friction, which can produce new ideas and novel solutions. But emotional maturity is required. Such opposition should be expressed professionally and respectively, among a team of equals.

Now what can rock & roll teach us about this? Well, the most successful bands are typically not led by arrogant, abrasive leaders who treat band mates with contempt. (My favorite examples: U2, the Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, the Dixie Chicks.) Most members of any artistic team do not tolerate an intemperate autocrat—for long anyway. In fact, most bands are not led by one leader, as I write about here.

But looking at the bright side of this, I can’t help but think that the presence of business leaders with the personality ascribed to Larry Summers (“blustery,” “impatient,” “bullying,” “condescending”) will keep me happily employed as a leadership coach for a long time.

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  1. Five years ago the folks at Change This saw fit to include my manifesto "Manners Matter" in their offering:


    The fact that it's been downloaded over 800 times, while not a record, tells me that business people are interested in manners, and where in blazes they've gone.

    If you really wanna see me get all fired up, suggest that taking offense is the fault of the offended rather than the offender.

    Rudeness is never excusable. Never. Good manners are never out of place.

  2. As John O'leary so aptly comments " Where to begin? Well, as a consultant who has counseled executives for decades in these issues, I applaud businesses that reject leaders who lack the self-control to restrain their impulsive reactions and who lack the imagination to find ways to address colleagues WITHOUT INSULTING THEM. (Is that too high a bar?) The alternate to boorish behavior is not “glad-handing” but respect for others. If leaders lack the discipline—and humility—to curb their outward disdain for people they disagree with, it’s a CHARACTER issue—which needs to be addressed."

    People and executives getting real about who they are with some clarity beyond cover stories that support their own tantrums and self indulgences, is key to creating the framework and structures of support necessary for people to thrive personally and for companies to succeed. If we are truly willing to look around at not only business and music, but our societies and world, it becomes quite clear that that lack of insight, integrity and mutual respect is and never has been capable of producing sustainable families, organizations or societies.
    I had the great pleasure of having John O'leary and his consulting partners work with me and my family business over 25 years ago. There is no philosophy in what John says. It comes from the truest experience of what it takes for human beings to prosper and thrive together. This may come from 'businesslessonsfromrock', but I will tell you, this blogger rocks! He literally taught us to find answers beyond the paradigms of right vs. wrong and power and control, in ways that blew what we thought possible to places we hadn't imagined. I have since retired out of that business, and the lessons learned to this day about respect, integrity and commitment to people towards greater access to the consideration of what's possible, that had not previously been available, is something for which I am always grateful. You rock John O'leary!

  3. Yes, Joel, social intelligence is a (if not THE) critical leadership capacity.

    Grant, thanks for the shout-out! It was great fun working with you and your family. It appears you haven't been emotionally scarred from working with me in my early days as a consultant, so we should count our blessings.

  4. Summers was on the wrong side of every economic decision made in the last 10 years. He was one of the key architects of the 2008 global meltdown. It's astonishing he's not in jail. His management style is just a bonus.

    Steve Jobs was just as bad as to personal demeanor. But he was generally on the right side of tech history.

    The Beatles, Stones and most long-lived bands were/are surprisingly democratically-run. Would not have tolerated a thunderbolt-hurling tyrant at the helm.

    Capitalism usually tolerates, and sometimes demands tyrannical behavior on the part of the CEO. And history generally goes very easy on the tyrant, as long as the biz was rockin'.

    Rock reviles violent or domineering bullies. And though the resultant music may be celebrated and successful, the perps themselves are eventually correctly villified. Read: Ike Turner/Bobby Brown/Phil Spector/etc.

    1. Great points.

      I decided to side-step the "other" issues with Summers.

      Jobs is an unusual story. A case study of a brilliant innovator who did so many things wrong as a manager. Hard to measure the cost of so much top talent talent leaving the company directly because of him — beginning with the first Macintosh team. Apple's overwhelming triumph over the years has concealed much of that. (Success has a way of doing that.) But, in Jobs' defense, he encouraged "creative abrasion" among his teams (harnessing the creative energy from the sparks of conflict) and, according to employees, eliminated passive aggressive behavior in the culture.

      The tyrannical CEO may never become extinct but is tolerated less in the multicultural world of today's business. And the outcry over bullying in school has carried over to the workplace.

      1. I've often wondered what would have happened under a kinder gentler Jobs.

        I worked at a wireless startup where the CTO wasn't rude; very polite, but a massive driver, as was the CEO.

        Much progress was made. A lot of good things were done, quickly. Like watching a freight train take off like a 747.

        Except the money ran out 6 months before the big orders from Sanyo and Panasonic came in.

        Would less driving have made a difference? Or more driving?

        Was Apple going to miss an opportunity if things didn't go fast enough? According to the bio movie Apple made on Jobs, at least one major release (iPhone? I don't remember) was planned for one year, but took three.

        Apple fan love just made it MORE appealing when it was done. Folks didn't go buy a Dell in the meantime.

        Did Jobs' ranting add value where it mattered: in the art of what makes their fans love them? I don't think so, but without more data it's hard to say.

  5. To my mind, one of the acid tests of any team or business unit or corporation is its ability to allow people to challenge what's going on. If a Manager won't even consider a question, or belittles the challenger, then there's something seriously wrong. "My way or the highway" with no room for discussion simply isn't a sustainable approach.

    Further, I think it's just a short step from here to an "ends justifies the means" culture and then a slide into unethical means and even outright illegality.

    I was going to say that there are extreme cases where action has to be taken quickly and you can't afford to hang around to debate it. But even then, i) a decent Manager should still explain to his staff why he's doing what he's doing; and ii) you'd be a twerp to ignore a good idea that came up that would make the emergency action work better.

    And picking up on Joel's excellent point (good manners are never out of place), there's also a responsibility on the challenger to raise the issues in a constructive way.

    1. One of my greatest accomplishments as a parent was that my children all knew that as long as it was done respectfully, they could challenge anything I said.

      I'd tell my oldest son Tristan it was time to mow the lawn and he'd say "Sure. Does it need to be done right away? The guys are gaming for the next hour, and then they'll be offline. Can I mow in an hour?"

      Unless we had company coming for a barbecue, how could I say no to that?

  6. The National Bullying Institute says that more than half of the bullies are men and that more than 70% of their victims ultimately leave the company. The bullies therefore win and women pay the heavier price. The price of bad behaviors in the work place is enormous.

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