Every once in a while I read a book or an article that is so compelling that it takes me aback. Such was the case a few months ago when one of my American clients forwarded an article from the Harvard Business Review.

The article was entitled “The Abrasive Personality”, and it was written by Harry Levinson and published in the May 1978 edition of HBR.  This article contained a number of ideas, suggestions and insights that, even forty-six years later, still resonate.

What is an Abrasive Personality?

Levinson’s article begins with a short study of a Vice President in a hypothetical corporation.  Smart, successful, ambitious and well-educated, this executive is so demanding, arrogant and irritating that he succeeds in alienating not just his team and peers but also, the President, to whom he reports.  Levinson uses this metaphor to highlight the profile of what a typically abrasive personality looks like.

Levinson characterizes someone who exhibits these characteristics as a “proverbial porcupine”: someone who has the ability to irritate and annoy those around him in a painful way.  He goes on to describe the qualities of someone who exhibits an “abrasive personality”:

  • • A natural knack for irritating others.
  • • A strong desire to be perfect, coupled with an overriding need to be accurate and complete.
  • • Extremely intelligent.
  • • A reluctance to delegate to others.
  • • Exceedingly analytical nature.
  • • Impatient with those who don’t think as quickly, or speak as forcefully, as him or her.
  • • Limited concern or interest in the development of others.
  • • An overriding desire to raise issues that others may be unwilling to discuss.
  • • Fawning behaviour towards supervisors and particularly, those in authority.
  • • No interest in the opinions or perspectives of others.
  • • An overt belief in their own qualities or abilities which they immodestly perceive as extraordinary.

Levinson explains what happens to abrasive personalities if left unchecked or undisciplined.   Invariably, he suggests, when these people die, retire or leave an organization, they leave behind teams that are not only demoralized, but which possess no confidence in their own skills.  Not surprisingly, many abrasive personalities later in their careers suffer from impaired thinking, an inability to adapt, and become increasingly irrelevant to the organizations in which they work.


An abrasive personality isn't usually hard to spot, but dealing with these individuals purposefully is another issue (Picture courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio and Pixels)

An abrasive personality isn’t usually hard to spot, but dealing with these individuals purposefully is another issue (Picture courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio and Pixels)

Managing Abrasive Personalities Proactively

Abusive personalities need to be managed, according to Levinson.  What is novel about his approach is that he treats the issue not as an interpersonal problem but as a significant personality disorder.  He posits a strategy to assist in transitioning abrasive personalities from their current behavioral patterns.  His techniques include:

  • • Recognizing that this personality stems from an “extremely vulnerable self-image, a hunger for perfection, and an eagerness for contact”.
  • • Without resorting to criticism describe his/her behaviour and actions.  Use coaching techniques to try and assist the person in understanding their behaviour and its impact on others.
  • • Acknowledge the desire to achieve, but impress upon them that future advancement will be contingent upon their ability to consider the reactions of others.
  • • Do not counterattack.
  • • Recognize that any conversation you have apprising them of their behaviour will likely need to be repeated several times.

Hallmarks of an Abrasive Personality

One area Levinson expressed concern around abrasive personalities was in identifying this behaviour during interviews.  He suggested there were two things hiring managers should be particularly aware of when attempting to screen out applicants who exhibit abrasive tendencies.

One was what he referred to as “charming personalities”.  Candidates who pay inordinate attention to their appearance may indicate someone who is an excessive perfectionist.  He makes the observation “The more exhibitionistic the person, the more a person needs approval, the less he or she can be thoughtful of others”.  He goes on to suggest that candidates whose past performance and accomplishments displays a lack of teamwork, an excessive amount of control, or meticulous supervision, may be symptomatic of an abrasive personality.

Identifying Abrasive Personalities

Perhaps the most unique thing in this article is a self-assessment questionnaire the author included which purportedly helps in identifying whether someone exhibits the trademark of an abrasive personality.  Questions like “In meetings, do your comments take a disproportionate amount of time” or “Are you quick to rise to the attack, to challenge” are intended to highlight abrasive personality traits.  According to Levinson, if one answers “yes” to six or more of the thirteen questions one may be deemed to be abrasive.

A Question Remains

Ask someone with an abrasive personality if they consider themselves abrasive and chances are they will reply in the negative.  As a defense some would describe themselves as being a “strong manager” or “demanding”, but never abrasive.  That begs the question which Levinson never really addresses; namely, how does one differentiate an abrasive personality from a strong personality?

For me, a strong personality is someone with a commanding presence.  These people are invariably well-qualified, capable and bright.  They are also demanding of themselves and others.  However, the key difference, I think, lies in their self-awareness.  Strong personalities will openly acknowledge their faults. They recognize their shortcomings.  They own their shortcomings, and may even admit to having an action plan to try and improve.  They admit their mistakes, and take responsibility when things go wrong.  Most importantly, they accept their imperfections, and while they possess high standards they recognize that it takes a team effort to achieve superior results.

A Final Thought….

Over the course of my professional career I’ve worked for a number of different bosses and supervisors.  Three were exemplary, a handful were average, and several varied from poor to mediocre.  Only one truly met what Levinson might describe as “abrasive”.

With the advantage of hindsight I can now see how her personality could be labelled abrasive. She was controlling, demanding, dismissive, and truly a perfectionist at heart.  Her staff walked on eggshells whenever she was around.  Turnover in her department was excessive.  She was eventually terminated, but only after a near revolt from within her department followed by direct appeals to the President and the Chairman of the Board.

These incidents occurred thirty-five years ago.  If it happened today her behaviour would have been deemed harassment, and would likely have initiated a workplace investigation in spite of her executive level status.

One of the biggest changes in the workplace in the past forty plus years has been the shift towards work teams.  You see tangible evidence of it everywhere:  in IT companies, in academia, in health care, in manufacturing.  People today work in teams, and the demand for collaboration, cooperation and teamwork has never been higher.  Matrix management is nearly universal, and many employees participate on more than one project or undertaking.

Back in 1978 employees worked in silos and in offices with walls and doors. Individualism was the norm, and the tolerance for abrasive personalities was much higher than today.  People with tantrums and overtly demanding personalities were tolerated because they produced results.

That then begs the question:  in today’s workplace can you change an abrasive personality?  Can you round off the rough edges, or file away some of the nastiness and temperament disorders?  Levinson suggested it could be done, but only through intervention by a trained third-party counsellor or medical professional.  Personally, I’m not so sure.  I think abrasive personalities simply are too deeply ingrained, and many can’t be altered.  The damage these individuals inflict on organizations, not to mention the people working there, far outnumbers the benefits that may accrue from remedial intervention.