This study explores the theoretical bases of an empathically-grounded coaching method designed to help abrasive executives construct less destructive interpersonal management strategies. An abrasive executive is defined as any individual charged with managerial authority whose interpersonal behavior causes emotional distress in coworkers sufficient to disrupt organizational functioning.
Cases of three abrasive executives coached in the use of empathy were analyzed in relation to sociobiological and psychoanalytic conceptualizations of threat, anxiety, and defense, as well as the construct of emotional management, drawn from emotional intelligence theory. This analysis and the explication of the coaching method was then integrated with findings from empathy research to construct a theory of coaching abrasive executives.
Abrasive behavior is understood to be the executive’s maladaptive defense against the threat of unconscious self-perceptions of inadequacy. Incessantly striving to demonstrate superior adequacy through super-competence, perceived coworker incompetence is inaccurately interpreted and attacked as resistance to the SuperManager’s quest for perfection. Executives were coached to use empathy (perception and accurate interpretation of behavior) to gain insight into the psychodynamics of their workplace interactions and the counterproductive consequences of an aggressive management style. This concept was conveyed through the interpretive lens of threat, anxiety, and defense encountered by the executive struggling for survival in an intensely competitive business environment.
Insights gained by the executives were used to develop interpersonal management strategies reflecting increased emotional intelligence and decreased aggression. These findings stand in contrast to bullying and mobbing theories which hold that abrasive executive behavior is both intractable and malevolently motivated. Further research is needed to develop and demonstrate the effectiveness of interventions designed to reduce workplace suffering caused by abrasive executives.
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