All Articles Leadership Communication Only the sharks survive? The risks of confrontation

Only the sharks survive? The risks of confrontation

5 min read


The show “Shark Tank,” like much of the media, perpetuates the myth that you have to be aggressive, assertive, even confrontational to advance your career and become a leader; that thoughtfulness, politeness, and the inability to summarize an important idea in less than a minute are crippling diseases; and that the business world is akin to a shark tank where you are likely to be devoured unless you adopt the characteristics of the sharks to survive. Amusing for sure, but as true reality? As Borat would say, “Not so much.”

Confrontation sounds exciting and climactic. Directly taking on your superiors over a perceived slight or a co-worker over credit stolen can be a strong temptation. The fantasy of doing so and pulling it off is powerful. Hollywood makes billions appealing to this urge, depicting hero after hero speaking big words and standing up to formidable powers. However, in the real world, the one that we work and live in, confrontation is usually a risky and dangerous thing.

Unfortunately, confrontation often necessitates stating a position aggressively, defending it and then expecting a resolution. This is tricky territory for almost everybody, as it can lead to intractable positions being taken, fears of showing weakness, unintentional personal comments, and worst of all, the misidentification of motives. Such things, once surfaced, are hard to eliminate.

We usually launch into confrontation without knowing all the facts, and we forget that in order to know all the facts we need to see and understand things from the other side. This is especially important for leaders — or more to the point, those who aspire to be leaders. Understanding the limits of confrontation and seeing the other side of any issue are key skills that leaders must master.

The best way to see the other side of any issue is to engage rather than confront. The next time an issue bothers you at work, or you feel you have earned something and been denied it, ask questions to better understand the situation. By all means, ask what was considered or what the reasons were behind a decision that affected you. You can even say that you would have liked to see things go in a different direction or in your favor.

But avoid being overly aggressive or confrontational. Far better to continue to work at sharing what you have to offer, trusting that someone in a position to advance your career will eventually see and notice your strengths is a much higher percentage play.

In the end, businesses must succeed in order to survive. If you cultivate your strengths and share them as widely and as constructively as possible, a person or group running a business or managing a department within a business will see that you can help make their business more successful. They will want you. Or someone senior within your company will see that you are not appreciated where you are, or perhaps are underutilized, and they will look to bring you into their area. However, if you pursue a tack of confrontation, you risk losing all of these possibilities.

Engage instead: Ask questions, make suggestions, explain your position and ask (not insist) that the other person consider your view, especially if the other person is your boss. Manifesting such skills will enhance your status as a leader. Those seeking leaders for key positions, as well as those being led, value these qualities as highly as any other.

As for those who to you seem to be advancing themselves by methods of active confrontation and continuing to demand more with apparent results, do not always believe what you hear, or think you see. Often what is happening behind the scenes is far different. Remind yourself that it sounds much better and ego supporting for someone to tell you that they received something by putting their foot down or showing that they would not be pushed around.

To say they simply laid out accurate and well-supported reasons, and then politely asked for something they thought was fair, does not make for an exciting story. After all, naming a show “Dolphin Tank” would not sound quite as powerful.

Keith Danko is the founder of Witherspoon Partners, a leading player in the alternative asset industry. He has over two decades of experience building and managing businesses, most notably restructuring and serving as CEO of ACAM Advisors. He also served as CEO of CQS US and as an executive director of Goldman Sachs, where he built the firm’s international asset-backed securities business. A Duke University graduate with a Harvard MBA, he is the author of “Within Your Grasp,” has written extensively on trends and careers in alternative assets, and has authored the white paper “Portable Alpha: An Updated Perspective.”

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