The Scarlet Letter
February 26, 2015 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Recently at work I was given serious feedback that others are finding me abrasive. I'm a woman, and aware of the history of application of this word unfairly, but I think there may be some truth in it in my case. I've read this and other articles about how to handle abrasive people who report to you, but I would like to hear suggestions from people who have also been in the position of receiving this label, and how you worked to overcome it, and whether your efforts have been successful. Recommended strategies appreciated.

Potentially relevant info: this came up in the context of two particularly stressful projects where the team wasn't functioning well and I was probably defensive and pushy rather than helpful. I definitely tend towards perfectionism. I'm under additional stress from life issues outside of work right now. I don't think it spreads to my entire performance but clearly these tendencies exist.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I would recommend the Manager Tools podcasts on DiSC. From their map of the universe you can go to communications -> DiSC. DiSC is built around communicating in a manner that is convenient for the other person, rather than in your own default communication style. Abrasive most commonly comes up with a high D defaulting to being very direct with others. It also comes up when high Cs (who have perfectionist tendencies) decide to tell others why they are right.
posted by bfranklin at 8:37 AM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ask A Manager had a great piece a while back about task-oriented people and relationship-oriented people in the workplace, and how they can come into conflict. Hopefully someone else has the link for this? I can't find it -- argh.

Anyway, it sounds like you are task-oriented, but you work with some people who are relationship-oriented. So fake it. You don't have to spend a lot of time, but ask them how the project is going, how their kids are, if their work trip went well, or how much snow they got in their town -- small talk can serve as a way of establishing a more positive relationship and humanizing you to the other person.

A few other strategies:

Whenever possible, talk to people in person or over the phone rather than via email. Email makes it very hard to judge tone.

Consider softening your phrasing. Instead of "Mike, Task X, need it by 5" try "Hey, Mike! Can you please work on Task X? We need it done by 5 so Sue can review for tomorrow. Let me know if this will be an issue. Thanks!" Same content, but softened by "could" and "please" -- and explaining why the deadline exists.

If you interrupt people, stop doing that. Hard, I know, especially when someone is explaining something you already know or when they're saying something based on an inaccurate peice of information and you just want to GET TO THE NEXT STEP. But it comes off as incredibly abrasive. So take deep breaths.

If someone provides bad suggestions, don't say "No" or "This is bad" or go into a long diatribe about why it's bad. Instead, try "We will take this under advisement" or "Thank your for your input. However, I think we'll be doing Y instead because of [reasons]."

Also, managing stress can help both how people perceive you and your own stress load. Try taking deep breaths, going for a brief walk, etc. When you are very stressed, take a moment to remind yourself that this too shall pass, and in a month you won't even remember what it was you were so stressed about.
posted by pie ninja at 8:55 AM on February 26, 2015 [7 favorites]

Hello fellow traveller!

I've struggled with this all my life. I've been described mostly politely as brusque, frequently less kindly. I think and hope, however, that I've come some way from the rude, all-business junior that I was, to understanding how to use this to work with, and lead, others.

I'm very task-focused, so this comes from that place. I pitch it to myself as become more effective at shepherding projects. Developing people skills as a task. This allows me to keep my results focus, but see that the needs of others are major part of results delivery. This helps you from getting your back up. These are a problems to be handled and managed, not personal attacks. Take your own reactions out of the mix and treat it as if it were puzzle to be solved instead. If this means a walk to clear your head, grab your coat. If it means delaying a call back, go find a coffee. Don't go into a meeting without a clear strategy. Time and disengagement to give a less emotional perspective may be your first step.

Fundamentally, I try to plan for needs, issues, roadblocks, and manage them as resource issues when they arise. In effect, gather the human factors into the project requirements. You have people with certain strengths and weaknesses. How can they be best effective? Learn to put yourself in their shoes: what do they need from your to deliver? How can you smooth their paths? How can you and your team be of best service to the rest of the organization, given the job you should be doing? Support is key, your folks should always feel like you have their backs and that they have your full support. You can't just say that either. You need to follow through in the crunch and be low-fuss and supportive even if you (privately) are disappointed or pissed off.

Can you develop a co-worker, a family member whose judgement and love you trust? Ask them to be a sounding board for you, to give a second opinion. A mentor can be an even a greater help, but can be very hard to come by. Look for them though. Don't be afraid to ask for advice when you are struggling.

Aside from that, I've found one of the best things I can do as a lead is to give a wider context to the team members (where possible). Everyone wants to know what they're doing is worthwhile. Explaining how the bigger picture fits together helps them understand that they're important, not just doing busy work off in a corner somewhere. When we're overly focussed we frequently tell people only the what, when and how. Whys and for whos are really important for team morale though. Don't forget that.
posted by bonehead at 9:32 AM on February 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am also a woman, an engineer, and a manager. When I was in my late 20's I became the first female engineering manager on a site of over 1500 employees. I'm currently a vice president of engineering with over 100 people in my reporting structure in the US, Latin America, and Europe. Over the years, I have had a lot of feedback, both direct and indirect, about being too direct, aggressive, assertive, inflexible, etc... :)

At the same time, I've been able to attend a lot of useful communication training and also had some great mentors along the way that have helped me find a balance and continue to be authentic.

One of the things I have learned about myself is that no matter how carefully I try to hide it or how much I have someone else review my communication (e.g. email), if I am irritated about something, it comes through loud and clear. I have also learned that when I don't understand why someone has the point of view they do, I tend to jump to labeling that perspective as stupid or crazy. This leads to me being irritated. If I can catch myself and attempt to use techniques to uncover the ladder of inference, I can sometimes nip that irritation in the bud and learn something about the other person's point of view. But, I would say that is an ongoing process for me and probably will be for the rest of my life :). [I just turned 54].

The best one-book encapsulation of what I have learned about communication is The Charisma Myth. I would recommend giving it a read and trying some of the exercises that resonate with your challenges. If you have a trusted mentor, having them help you with these exercises, giving you feedback in the process, so much the better!

Another thing I've learned, as a technically trained person, is that learning communication skills is nothing like learning engineering. In engineering, understanding the concepts and learning to work the problems is the hard part. Once you have that down, repetition is a lot easier. With communication, I think it is just the opposite. The concepts seem easy and straightforward. But, applying them consistently and under stress is incredibly difficult. I use an analogy of learning how to parallel ski -- the concept is simple -- shift your weight to one leg to turn. But as someone else on askmefi was finding out earlier this week, putting that into practice on a ski slope is not so simple. Communication is like that too in my experience.

Hope you find this useful!
posted by elmay at 10:26 AM on February 26, 2015 [11 favorites]

I've always had a tendency to be a bit bossy, and I like things done "my way." Two things I've been working on (at work and in my personal life):

1. Recognizing that there are other ways to do things, and remembering that the person doing them is smart and capable.

2. Changing the way I present feedback. I try not to use the word "should" if at all possible. I say "consider doing x" or "what about y" or "have you thought about z." People are more receptive to that kind of language.
posted by radioamy at 10:27 AM on February 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I took this class last year, it was pretty interesting. It talks mostly about how to recognize how people need to be interacted with and how you (who needs to be interacted with in a different way) can interact with them in a way that makes them feel comfortable and give them what they need. It talks quite a bit about how you (as a leader) need to motivate them. It was pretty good.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 10:44 AM on February 26, 2015

Has anyone suggested therapy? No? Amazing. I suggest therapy.

Also, take an afternoon by yourself to walk and think and settle on a practice that you'll adopt for a given time, something simple. Maybe you monitor yourself for the feeling that precedes doing or saying abrasive stuff and make a mental (or physical) checkmark, maybe you always breathe in, then, out, before asking someone to do something. Up to you, but it needs to be clear and specific and consistently maintained.

One's brain is a fractious toddler when you get down to it and so when it starts sabotaging you, you need to develop a superstructure of discipline to make its bad behaviours less rewarding.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:49 PM on February 26, 2015

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