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'Abrasive behaviour is like cancer'

Last updated on: April 19, 2021 10:04 IST
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'They are acutely aware of how they can use their power as a means to either continue dominating people or to get ahead.'

Abrasive behaviour

IMAGE: Kindly note this image has only been used for representational purposes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Andrea Piacquadio/

As CEO of the International Cricket Council, Manu Sawhney held one of the most powerful posts in the world of sport.

Last month, Sawhney -- who the The Australian newspaper alleged is 'abrasive and sharp-elbowed' -- was reportedly asked to go 'on leave' after audit firm PricewaterhouseCoopers raised questions about his 'abrasive behaviour' with colleagues.

Sawnhey, who is still on leave, did not appear for a hearing scheduled in the last week of March. According to The Times Of India, the ICC wants to give him another opportunity to present his case.

"Abrasive behaviour can be seen in organisations where there is pressure from various stakeholders, which includes shareholders as well, to deliver results at all costs," says Amit Chincholikar, the global chief human resources officer at Tata Consumer Products.

The first of a three-part interview with Savera R Someshwar/


ICC CEO Manu Sawhney has been sent on 'leave' after his allegedly 'abrasive behaviour' with colleagues came under the scanner during an internal investigation by PricewaterhouseCooper.
How common is this kind of behaviour when it comes to CEOs and senior leaders in companies?

Let me try to answer that in two ways.

First, does this kind of behaviour exist in leadership teams across organisations? Yes, it does and, unfortunately, more than what one would like to see at senior levels across various organisations.

There can be a very thin line between abrasive behaviour and behaviour that demands accountability and performance. And that's something that people often struggle with -- where does one cross the line between being demanding and holding people accountable and getting abrasive?

How does someone who is at the receiving end understand this difference? For example, if you are being pulled up for not doing your work well, in your irritation, you might classify it as abrasive behaviour when it's not.

Ironically, the answer to that lies in what most of us would have experienced when we were in school.

The first lesson that many of us, including teachers, are taught is that you never focus on the individual. Instead, you focus on the behaviour because behaviour can change.

It's the difference between saying you are not doing well and saying your performance needs improvement.

Where I think behaviour starts becoming abrasive is:

a. When it is disrespectful and attacks individuals at a personal level. It makes them feel ashamed of themselves.

b. When -- and this is what abrasive behaviour very often, in my view, actual is -- it is a show of power. It's not about professional integrity. The person exhibiting such behaviour very often uses it to put people in their place by taking advantage of their own position. They see themselves as above and beyond the normal norms of social behaviour.

Sometimes, people believe it is not always possible to simultaneously be respectful and demand accountability and performance. But research across the world has shown that this is indeed possible.

People often hide their abrasive behaviour by saying the world focuses on outcomes and results and the results are being delivered.

You don't have to be disagreeable to disagree. You can hold people accountable, you can ensure people are doing their jobs without making them feel small about themselves.

Abrasive behaviour can be seen in organisations where there is pressure from various stakeholders, which includes shareholders as well, to deliver results at all costs.

If you don't hold people accountable for the way they behave, then you are perpetuating this kind of negative behaviour.

Which brings me to my next question. Is it more common in India for abrasive managers to get away with bad behaviour? If so, why?

No, I don't think it's specifically common to India.

You will find examples all over the world of managers being abrasive for the simple reason that, very often, this is a question of power play.

It is about people believing they cannot be touched or that they are in positions where they cannot be impacted by their behaviour, no matter how they behave.

It is possible though that it gets noticed more in India because Indians tend to more demonstrative in their behaviour.

Amit Chincholikar

Where does one draw the line between correcting or pulling up an employee and abrasive behaviour? At what point does the management need to step in?

It essentially comes down to two simple principles.

The first, always treat people the way you would like to be treated. Managers must remember that people respect a designation and there can come a time a time when that post is no longer with you.

It is extremely important for senior executives to practise empathy, which really is about putting yourself in the other person's shoes.

Secondly, continuous feedback is very important in any working relationship.

One doesn't always have to wait until the last minute to drop a hammer and say, look, this is not working.

There are telltale signs people will exhibit in terms of their performance not being up to the mark, output not being delivered on time, errors in work. Such kind of behaviour will not be a one-off incident. In which case, managers can use it as a basis to have a performance accountability conversation.

If we were to draw a personal parallel, look at the way relationships start turning hostile. Very often, there is a pattern. And when such patterns repeat themselves with increasing frequency, you know there is a problem.

If, at any stage, a leader experiences such problems with an individual, or a set of individuals, in his or her team, it is time to step in and start providing constructive feedback.

When that happens, then typically there is no need to be forceful because there are no surprises for both parties.

These two points should be the North Star for any organisation.

As far as correcting mangers is concerned, the time to step in comes when it starts hurting an individual at a personal level as opposed to at a professional level of incompetence.

Organisations have their own set of 'values' which manifests in the organisation's behaviour. If an individual's behaviour crosses the organisation's values, the person needs to be alerted to the fact.

The challenge of abrasive behaviour actually kicks in when there is a disagreement and a person who is in a position of power tends to end that disagreement with a show of authority or a show of hierarchy, which then tends to get abrasive.

However, you can prevent this by being alert to this pattern.

The issue, I think, is that managers believe they are accountable for results, but never always believe they are accountable for people as well.

If that one little switch is made by managers in their heads, it is very easy and very possible to prevent any abrasive behaviour from coming up in the first place.

Do senior employees -- especially those who have a pattern of aggressive behaviour -- realise their behaviour is abrasive and hurtful? Or does someone else need to step in and point it out to them? Even then, does the realisation dawn?

I think you will find both types of leaders.

There are people who have blind spots. They don't mean to behave in a certain manner and are unaware of how they are coming across.

In today's day and age, there are many mechanisms through which one can figure this out.

Very often, if when a person gets feedback from their team and peers, they will know this because -- and this is a line that really explains the situation -- the person will say, 'Mera woh matlab nahi tha', which meansI didn't mean for it to be this way.

Unfortunately, the reality is that we always judge ourselves by our intent and other people by their actions.

Leaders must understand that their actions speak. I believe that if you hold up a mirror to people who are abrasive in nature, many of them resist for a while but will, sooner or later, understand the need for change because they don't intend being this way.

I think the really dangerous managers are those who recognise that they can use this as a tool for domination and use it selectively.

These kinds of abrasive managers are most dangerous. Inherently, they're very intelligent and very smart. They know their strengths very well.

They will deliver outstanding results. But they are also acutely aware of how they can use their power as a means to either continue dominating people or to get ahead.

This kind of behaviour is like a cancer that has to be removed from the system.

What are some of the trigger points for abrasive bosses or abrasive seniors? Do you think something like sharing credit, or sharing the spotlight, could be one?

Yes, I think that would definitely be one trigger.

There are a variety of reasons why this happens. Insecurity is just one of them. Sharing the spotlight very often translates to insecurity about someone else being able to do something, or doing something better than you.

I would say the biggest trigger is utter domination, which is to say I have to get everybody to agree. It's my way or the highway and anybody who may not agree or be in line with or amenable to my kind of thinking (needs to be put in their place).

It is where you have a closed mind and basically say, 'Listen, I know this and I basically need a set of yes men and women to execute what I'm saying.'

When that happens, and it start going out of line, abrasive behaviour comes in. When a person starts believing he or she is invincible and cannot be touched is where the abuse of power takes place.

That old adage comes to life -- power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Amit Chincholikar's photograph: Kind courtesy Tata Consumer Products

Part 2: 'Young people won't tolerate abrasive behaviour'

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