Overcoming abrasive behaviors at work

Overcoming abrasive behaviors at work

Jarelyn was pleased at how the meeting had been going. It seemed her efforts to encourage collaboration were paying off. Then, the door banged open. “Sorry I’m late,” Michael announced, noisily taking his seat.

Michael, a fellow department head with Jarelyn, gazed at Jarelyn and scowled, motioning toward the rest of the group as he said, “Some of us have other work to do, so let’s pick up the pace.” Michael then swiveled his chair and began talking to someone else across the room.

Jarelyn felt embarrassed and frustrated. She spent the rest of the meeting fuming and contributed little. “How could a few words throw me off so completely?” she wondered later.

Sadly, abrasive behaviors happen all the time. Like Jarelyn, people often feel powerless to react productively.

Thankfully, there is a fundamental human characteristic that can short-circuit abrasive behaviors, whether from coworkers or supervisors. That trait is curiosity. To harness curiosity, you have to understand abrasive behaviors.

Abrasive behaviors can be categorized in six objective types:

  • verbal
  • voice
  • gesture
  • facial expression
  • sound
  • body movement

This post focuses on behaviors that are not illegal and are not violations of an organization’s policies. (These types of behaviors may be better addressed through formal processes.)

Michael’s statement about “picking up the pace,” coupled with how he said “some of us,” constituted verbal and voice abrasive behaviors to Jarelyn (and possibly others in the room). Michael added an abrasive gesture with a wave of his hand. He also added an abrasive facial expression with pursed lips and squinted eyes (a scowl). Michael started with an abrasive sound (banging open the door) and ended with an abrasive movement (turning his chair away from Michael).

Abrasive behaviors have power because they fly under the radar of normal conversation. They cause you to question your basic value to the organization – your pay, your job and even your right to respect. If the abrasive behavior comes from a person in a higher position of authority, the perception of a threat to identity only heightens.

As with the scenario above, typical reactions include shock, anger and withdrawal. You may feel compelled to match abrasive behavior for abrasive behavior. Strong curiosity breaks that pattern, however.

Using the “curiosity muscle” takes effort, but it can be done. Here’s how:

  1. Pause

    Athletes take time to stretch before participating in strenuous exercise. This prevents injury. When dealing with abrasive behaviors, the “curiosity muscle” needs time to warm up, too. A pause before responding is that warm-up.

    Pausing may mean simply giving yourself permission not to react at the moment. Or, it may require a few words to the other person. If words are needed, it is best to acknowledge the other person’s behavior. (“I see you” or “I hear what you said.”) Then, simply say you need a moment. This procedure works for peers and managers alike, if conveyed without reacting.

    In the scenario with Jarelyn and Michael, if Jarelyn feels she needs to say something during the meeting, she might say, “I hear what you are saying Michael, and I’d like to talk to you about it after the meeting.”

  2. Mentally put the behavior or behaviors in appropriate boxes

    You don’t need to memorize the six types of abrasive behaviors above (although it might help if you regularly encounter abrasive behavior in the workplace). Use any neutral categories that work for you. (Hint: “Being a jerk” is not a neutral category.) The key is to objectively describe the behavior in your mind – what you saw and heard. You gain power over things you name.

    Naming abrasive behaviors in your mind gets them out from under the radar and separates your identity from the behaviors: they are simply things to be categorized and analyzed, not reliable judgments about identity.

  3. Ask yourself, “What hidden information is this person communicating by this behavior?”

    Most people do not intend to be abrasive. They believe circumstances warrant their behavior, if they think about it at all. In most cases, they are not trying to be abrasive per se. They are trying to make a point or convey an emotion that they feel is not being appreciated.

    In the scenario with Jarelyn and Michael, Michael may be saying subconsciously: “I am concerned about my time management skills. Jarelyn may be a competitor for a future promotion. I need to take charge to protect myself.”

  4. Start a conversation about conversations

    When it is safe, objectively describe the behavior experienced. For example, in the scenario above, Jarelyn might say: “Michael, when you joined the meeting, you said something about ‘picking up the pace’ and said that ‘some of us have a lot of work to do,’ using a different tone of voice. You also used a hand gesture toward the others and then turned away from me.”

    Next, describe the impact on you. Do not blame or assume intent. For example, Jarelyn might say, “when you talked about picking up the pace, I felt embarrassed and angry.” She should not say, “I was angry you thought I was wasting time.” By the same token, you should not describe how others may have felt. This just gives your colleague an opportunity to debate. Finally, invite your colleague to help you understand what they intended by the behaviors. Look for common goals in their explanation.

    With behaviors and intent on the table, explore the disconnect between your colleague’s goals and how your feelings make it difficult for you to align with common goals.

    The other person may say your feelings are not what was intended. Nonetheless, there remains a disconnect between behaviors and goals. That disconnect isn’t serving anyone. If the other person is in a position of greater authority, the conversation is the same, just expressed in language consistent with a supervisory relationship.

    Finally, if future interactions are likely, discuss communication ground rules. The key is to describe ways of relating that you both agree would be fair and appropriate. You may have to adjust behaviors as well.