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Don’t be afraid of confrontation

5 min read


To disagree, one doesn’t have to be disagreeable. ~ Barry Goldwater

Credit: iStockphoto

Few leaders can avoid confrontation. There are simply too many items and employees that require oversight and guidance. The likelihood is very high that every leader will need to address numerous areas of concern within her organization at various points.

Whether the matter is personal (a co-worker’s attitude or manners, for example) or performance related, confronting someone about an issue can be one of the hardest things for a leader to do. It is generally unpleasant for someone to have to bring this concern forward and demand change and improvement. In fact, many leaders will go to extreme lengths to avoid it. Some reasons for this include:

  • Fear of how your relationship will be affected moving forward;
  • Concern over being seen as overly demanding or callous;
  • Bad feelings from past confrontations that went awry;
  • Second-guessing and questioning ourselves regarding our grounds and motives for the confrontation;
  • Negative memories from times that we were confronted by others.

Yet, we also know what can happen when a leader fails to step up and deal with a troubling situation. Without a doubt, it would be a mistake to allow problems to continue in the spirit of being a nice guy and hoping that the situation will magically be resolved on its own. Problem behaviors and poor performance need to be addressed early on and in a clear and firm manner. Doing so will not only help you reset expectations but may also help you understand why the problems are occurring. Your actions will also be appreciated by the rest of your staff who may be even more fed up with such negativity and mediocrity than you are.

To be clear, the confrontation that we are discussing is not of the aggressive, agitated variety. Such approaches are almost guaranteed to engender ill will and may even go sideways on you. Rather, leaders need to find ways to discuss their concerns in a calm, direct and proactive fashion. Engaging in productive confrontation paves the way for alternative perspectives, healthier boundaries, innovative approaches, and challenges to the status quo, all of which are essential if we want to enhance our present realities.

Even with a calm presentation it can be very difficult for leaders to confront others, for the reasons stated above. What can leaders do to overcome their concerns and be more willing to address problems head-on?

Be prepared. Take the time to assess the situation as fully as possible. This includes understanding the concern thoroughly in addition to how it affects you and the company — practically as well as emotionally. Try to separate out the less crucial components from the core considerations. Once you have that clear, prepare for what you will say in detail. In that process, seek to identify the other person’s agenda and what her likely reaction will be. Use logic rather than emotion to frame your argument; if you’re too worked up emotionally, then you’re not ready to move forward. Lastly, seek to identify what an ideal outcome would look like that brings success and satisfaction to you both. 

Ask yourself, “How would I want to be approached?” Oftentimes, the best measure for how best to advance an unpleasant conversation is to determine how you would like to be approached in such a situation. Unless you are one of those people who let things slide off of your back easily, your own intuition should guide you well. Naturally, setting and context are important. No one wants to be confronted in public or while they’re in the middle of an important task. Ideally, they should know that the conversation is coming beforehand. This will help them begin to reflect about what might be bothering you.

Of course, never begin any conversation if you are not in full control of your emotions. If you are not sure that you are ready to manage your emotions before the confrontation, role-play it with someone you trust and ask for feedback. Practice makes perfect, especially in cases such as these.

Keep the conversation issues-oriented. There is nothing wrong with being hard on the issues so long as you remain soft on the person. Affirm your relationship with her and express your commitment to doing what you can to help achieve a positive outcome. Also express what is working before hitting home on the concerns. When expressing the problems, demonstrate as much care, respect, and compassion as you can muster. Once you have completed your opening statement stop talking. Dont hedge, qualify or compromise what you have said. Let the other person respond, and really seek to listen. Do your best to not argue. Stay calm, centered and focused.

Be open to a new outcome. Though you will spend time thinking about your desired outcome and then rehearsing how to achieve it, it pays to remain open to the possibility of arriving at a different solution. Explore and discuss potential solutions and alternatives, and try to focus on both parties’ individual needs and wants. 

Set a course of action. Once you have arrived at an agreement, decide on a follow-up plan. What will each person will do to address the issue? Make sure that the goals that you set are S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) and come with an attached timeframe. Then, make every effort to stay to the agreed to process.

Naphtali Hoff (@impactfulcoach) served as an educator and school administrator for over 15 years before becoming an executive coach and consultant. Read his blog

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