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Dealing with abusive behaviour on your farm

You have to be proactive rather than reactive to bad behaviour

I soaked up the seminar “Dealing with Abusive Behaviour at work,” led by Dave McNaughton an HR specialist from Winnipeg. Dave referred to Dr. Stephen Hart’s video from the Proactive Resolutions company, (You have to love the idea of being proactive rather than reactive to bad behaviour in the workplace.)

Give everyone a safe environment to work in. Gossiping is an abrasive behaviour. As a farm family coach I encourage families to stop talking about each other, creating gossip triangles. Instead, go directly to speak to the person who you have the issue with.

How do you manage abrasive behaviour?

Abrasive is the process of wearing down or rubbing away by means of friction.

“Wearing down means… rubbing folks the wrong way, for example, the co-workers down.

Here are the top five behaviours that abrasive employees display:

  1. Overreacts;
  2. Overcontrols;
  3. Threatens;
  4. Public humiliation;
  5. Condescension.

If abrasive behaviour is not stopped then it gets worse. The fallout from ongoing abusive behaviour has a huge negative impact on farms with lower morale and productivity, legal cases, retaliation, sabotage and homicide.

Symptoms of chronic abrasion

One symptom is continuing complaints (negative perceptions) brought on by employees. Who likes to work with a bunch of whiners? Do you have a complaint system on your farm, for informal/formal complaints? Comments like, “don’t get on their bad side or you will pay if you do,” are symptoms of chronic abrasion.

Are you devoting excessive managerial time to address employee distress? Leadership loses credibility when there is a failure to intervene. Don’t see intervention as weakness. Do not condone abrasive behaviour? If you do, you’ll be dealing with people leaving (increased attrition) and more sick time.

Here are the assumptions of abrasive people:

  • Fully aware. They are fully aware of what they are doing to the workplace culture. I don’t think this is true as some highly conflicted families see daily fighting and abrasiveness as “normal.” This is not good.
  • Intent to cause harm. What is the true intent of the bully with nasty behaviour?
  • Means through aggression/intimidation. These bad actors thrive on intimidation as the pattern that is their daily mode of operation. It is all they know.
  • Behaviour will not change. Yikes. This is serious, if you really don’t think the abrasive person can change to more workable, kind behaviour, then what are you going to do about the person who is making your farm a toxic place to be?

Farm families need to build awareness to create change. The good news is that abrasive behaviour is coachable. The bad news is that the abrasive behaviour may be a long-term pattern of a founder parent. Are you ready to stand up to your parent? The nasty folks need coaching, mentoring and supporting.

Here’s what good managers do

They see a problem, explore the cause, assess if employee is unable or unwilling to change. Address the problem: provide resources, training, set limits and consequences. Then you have to follow up!

Abrasive managers see an abrasive problem and say: “you’ll pay if you get in their way.” Their business is survival, and they just want to go about their business. They defend against threats to their survival with aggression. Threat, anxiety then defence is the pattern. You can choose “fight or flight”… or choose to walk through the threatening issue rationally. McNaughton says to make sure that you “document everything.” Abrasive folks fear loss of connection with abandonment anxiety, (physical, personal, mental, work relationship or loss of life with loss of credibility.

Work through it

Intervene: focus on the evidence versus negative perceptions, get to the root of the problem, change the behaviour.

Defence tactics

“Nobody’s perfect” rationalization, so you keep accepting bad behaviour.

Projection: “He’s got difficult employees.”

Minimizing: “You’re making too much of this.”

Procrastination: “It won’t be long before she retires.” I think procrastination is killing many good decision opportunities on farms in 2017!

Managers don’t intervene for fear of being harmed or doing harm. They fear or recall past intervention efforts that have not gone well. They believe that people cannot change. They see the only option as termination.

Failure to address bad behaviour actually promotes more bad behaviour. I have often said, “You get the behaviour that you accept.”

Differentiate performance versus conduct

Performance is the execution of the technical requirement of one’s job. How to intervene? Make them see the impact of their behaviour. “Do you see what your behaviour is doing to us? Focus on evidence versus negative perceptions. What is the documentation? “We need to have you turn this around Charlie!” Make them care enough to want to change. Offer help and training.

Your perceptions are your reality! Perceptions are powerful, so you need guidelines and consequences… List the direct and indirect perceptions. What have you observed? What has to change — they have to buy into changing. “People need to be treated with respect.” Are you ready to take control and be a manager?

Make them care enough to change

Prepare yourself to conduct the interview:

  • What are the threats posed to you, others, and the farm by intervening?
  • What are your anxieties?
  • What is the worst-case scenario?

Explain why you are meeting, and make them see the negative perceptions. Make them care enough to want to change. Offer help. Monitor for improvement. Describe the individual’s value to you. Explain that you owe them information. Explain that the behaviour is the problem — negative perceptions about their style of interacting with others is the problem. Say, “I observed…” Avoid generalities. Describe their impact… e.g. people felt intimidated. Set limits and consequences.


Internal mentoring. You’ll need to be a proactive leader on your farm team.

Employee assistance programs for stress-related issues.

External specializing coaching (anger management, personal issues etc.).

Stick to your guns, don’t get into a war of words. Stick to your objectives.

About the author


Elaine Froese is a Manitoba 150 Woman Trailblazer. She is passionate to guide farm families to find harmony through understanding. Her mission is for you to have rich relationships on your farm. Visit to learn more and book her for speaking engagements at



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