Published: Oct. 16, 2023

A crowd of around 75 community members kicked off a year of celebrating CU Boulder’s Ombuds Office on Sept. 27 with insight from a mentor to those who deal with abrasive leaders. The key to understanding abrasive behavior in workplace leaders, she said, is knowing they are afraid.

Laura Crawshaw, a psychotherapist, corporate officer and executive coach, is the author of the new book, “Grow Your Spine & Manage Abrasive Leadership Behavior: A Guide for Those Who Manage Bosses Who Bully.” She said that “behind every abrasive boss there is a struggling, fearful, insecure person.

CU Boulder chancellor, provost and COO mingling with attendees

CU Boulder Chancello Philip DiStefano, Provost Russell Moore and Chief Operating Officer Patrick O'Rourke mingle with attendees. Photo by Cay Leytham-Powell.

CU Boulder Ombuds Office staff

CU Boulder Ombuds Office staff at the 50th anniversary kickoff event. Photo by Cay Leytham-Powell.

“And the fear doesn’t end there,” she said.

“Targets of bullying are afraid; management is afraid; and the abrasive leader is afraid,” Crawshaw said. But, in the case of the abrasive leader, if colleagues find ways to calm the fear, they can develop insight into these behaviors and turn them around.

The key for leaders who manage abrasive bosses, she said, is to grow “a management backbone” that “sets limits and defines consequences for continued unacceptable behavior.”

Enter CU Boulder’s Ombuds Office, which Crawshaw said is the first in the nation to “adopt and offer these services for abrasive leaders.”

The CU office was founded in 1972 as a center for mediation and conflict resolution. It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a series of events to raise awareness of its services, which include listening “without judgment (to) help people untangle issues, develop options, and strategize” according to its website.

Kirsi Aulin, Ombuds Office director at CU Boulder since 2016 and a longtime colleague and collaborator with Crawshaw, told the group that CU’s office has succeeded in part thanks to the backbone of generations of campus leaders.

“For half a century, generations of campus leaders have supported Ombuds’ work and understood its value...We’re grateful for 50 years of steady support from our leadership that continues to this day,” Aulin said.

At the kickoff event, campus leadership was out in full force. Chancellor Philip DiStefano, Provost Russell Moore and Chief Operating Officer Patrick O’Rourke attended and paid tribute to the Ombuds Office for its role in resolving unhealthy conflict.

DiStefano said the office’s work reminded him of a comment by a colleague that a university should be a “house of conflict,” a whirlpool of colliding ideas, theories and issues.

“The ombuds staff works to rebuild trust so we can have the kind of healthy conflict my colleague referenced,” DiStefano said. “The service you provide is remarkable, and I wish you and your staff continued success.”

Watch the video recording of Crawshaw’s talk. Visit Ombuds Office website to learn more about their services.