CN Executive Coaching Corner

The “Abrasiveness” Curse

Brillo IMG_20140903_135345_254bwIn a small scale study, Kieran Snyder found that high achieving men and women were being described differently in a sampling of performance reviews, revealing a bias against women by both men and women.  The write up in Fortune brought a smile, and a quick trip down memory lane.

Despite the limitation in scope of the study, her finding and conclusion regarding gender bias, the abrasiveness misjudgment doesn’t occur exclusively across genders. This kind of performance perception dichotomy is likely to appear in virtually any situation where nontraditional members are placed in groups of traditional members, whether as subordinate, peer or superior.

HBR long ago published a Harry Levinson article titled, “The Abrasive Personality.” (May-June 1978) I was initially appalled and puzzled when my manager handed me a copy as part of my performance review. I took some solace in the fact that in 1978, HBR’s primary target audience was pretty much white guys, which meant that they were also subject to being seen as abrasive.  That softened some of the potential racial implications in the personality critique. And I perceived the fact of my manager’s handing me anything at all bearing the word “Harvard” as at least some form of an intended compliment. Still, it took me a few sleepless nights to sort through the nuances of the realities and perceptions…including the extremely remote possibility that I truly was abrasive. I’m still contemplating that one.

“Such a person is most usually extremely intelligent. With a passion for perfection,” wrote Levinson, “accuracy, and completeness, he pushes himself very hard, and can be counted on to do a job well, often spectacularly.” Great fodder for the performance review. Unfortunately, Levinson then tied abrasiveness to a variety of psychological imbalances. In the end, though with scant academic psychology reference, he suggested that the unrepentant abrasive personality may need to seek professional help. That was the management wisdom of the day, and that’s what kept me up a few nights…until my powerful psychological defense mechanisms kicked back into gear, including denial. I took comfort in the fact that HBR had no “Dr.” before or “Ph.D.” after Levinson’s name. Rather than seeking out a prescription for the psychotropics of the time period, I settled for a few beers and a long weekend to get over it.

Snyder struggled with the finding that in her subject base, women themselves were more often guilty of the same gender bias in their language, wondering “whether women were simply more willing to submit reviews that include critical language, or whether men removed language from their review documents before submitting.” Here’s something to consider on that score.

The performance review is not just a permanent reflection on the subordinate alone. Written performance reviews can reveal as much about the superior as the subordinate. Those reviews, and the sessions in which they are delivered can be a gold mine of information for the subordinate review subject about the nature, quality and intent of their reviewing superior, especially for minorities and women.

Thus, schooled reviewers have understand (as was explained to me, thankfully) that what is not written into a review of the subject employee can say as much or more than what is written…about the manager and the subordinate. Damning with faint praise, for example, is the more popular technique for passive-aggressive reviewers, and their behind-closed-doors whispers to management peers will take care of the rest for sabotaging any subordinate’s career, race & gender notwithstanding. Levinson’s advice for managing persistent abrasiveness went straight to disciplinary processes leading to termination.

It’s 2014, it’s still an issue, and still a career crippling characterization.  Receiving the “abrasive curse” in a performance review is deadly, even if one said to be mildly so, and the HBR article way back then gave a big hint that it is not just a label given to minorities or women. Once bitten, it may well be time to either start looking for another job, actively seeking a personality-changing religious experience, or settling in for a difficult and frustrating work environment for the foreseeable future. Without a powerful champion in the company, even the most diligent and convincing work at counteracting the characterization will likely take valuable years away from a progressive career in that organization, several performance review cycles at least.

In the meantime, the coaching advice is to be grateful for the articulation of it, spoken or written, biased or neutral, perception or reality. It is an incredibly valuable piece of information for the nontraditional “diverse” employee for doing career assessment and planning.

Related Article: Againstness – The Invisible Power


Copyright (c) Robert D. Jones 2014- All Rights Reserved


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