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Changing Confrontations to Conversations

Written by Terri Wallin

Confrontations are as natural as the flu and just as pleasant. Leaders deal with them the same way. Some leaders pretend an issue is nonexistent and wonder why their organization is weak and febrile. Some procrastinate about solving an issue and are incredulous when their immune system (a.k.a. company) goes awry. Some leaders court confrontation like they would the flu. In the latter, you see them sitting without shirts on in open-air football stadiums during the winter. People who embrace confrontation have J.R. Ewing in the old Dallas TV show as their poster child. They are not happy unless the organization is in turmoil.

Leaders with poor confrontation skills sulk, sabotage or shout a lot. Leaders with good confrontation skills hate confronting people as much as anyone but they pick and choose their battles. They do not seek confrontation just as they would not seek the flu. But when it comes, as it inevitably will, they see it as a way to bring about a necessary conversation.

When it comes to behavior and performance, it is wise to deal with the issue as it arises rather than wait for the problem to spread, i.e., the flu to turn into organizational pneumonia. Most of us hope the problem disappears on its own rather than claim squatters’ rights and become an unwelcome, permanent guest. Why do we do that?

It seems easier to fire someone than expend the energy to mold that person into the employee s/he could be. Many leaders stockpile grievances over time until they reach critical mass and the ignorant employee lights the fuse and wonders why s/he is on the unemployment line. This doesn’t help the individual(s) or the leader in the long run. It just becomes a bad habit. Have a problem; get rid of it—over and over. When leaders learn the art of dealing with an issue as it arises, the confrontation is transformed to a conversation. This art results in good outcomes for everyone involved and it is replicable with any situation, personally and professionally.

Here are a few common examples to ponder.

  1. The union leaders have a national agenda that is now making its way into your organization as a hot issue. All of a sudden the number of grievances rise and employees become incredibly vocal and angry about everything. Do you deal with it or let it try work itself out through individual managers in your organization?
  2. A key leader wants to take off two months. Shortly after pondering the request you notice his/her work in a new way. All of a sudden most everything the person has done you see in a different light and really there isn’t much the person has done that you think has been that great. Have you just realized you aren’t happy with the performance or has it been building up over time? Or are you just seeing through a different lens because you don’t really want to deal with the request?
  3. Your vision is shared with your team and there is mutiny on the bounty. Do you deal with it or believe it will work itself out over time?
  4. You have a core set of values that you are implementing throughout the organization and most of your leaders model the behaviors. You have two leaders who have been in the organization for over twenty years and frankly it is hard to believe they have made it this long. They don’t model the values, they really aren’t good leaders, but they are still there. What do you do with them? Will they all of a sudden get it and change?
  5. Then there are simpler examples within an organization—the renegade board member, the negative manager who fights every change, the manager whose department misses the productivity targets more often than not and so on.

Changing confrontation to conversation shutterstock_165534074 (2)Each example requires a leader to make decisions about confronting a problem. Sometimes it is an issue of who, what, when, where, and/or how. It takes skill to turn confrontations into win-win conversations. The more practice you get, the more effective you become in dealing with people fairly and consistently.

Where do you begin? Here are 5 ways to start.

  1. Raise your internal awareness about the kind of things that are irritating and force yourself to become clear about the “why”. Typically there is a conflict between the issue and your organizational or personal values.
  2. Once you are aware of the irritation, evaluate if it is an area for your own growth to move beyond the irritation and let it go or if it is something that hurts the organization by having the issue not dealt with.
  3. Ask yourself if it is a new or long standing issue. If the former, think through how to handle it timely and with a conversation without your emotion driving it. Give clear examples of the issues impact on the organization and outline your expectations. If the latter, think it through and get rid of the emotional build up that is likely to be present. When you are ready, talk through the issue with the individual and be clear about owning your part—not dealing with the issue timely and letting it go without dealing with it over a period of time. Follow with why it is an issue and what the expectations are in a conversation.
  4. Provide timely feedback every time there is success with overcoming the issue or continuation of the issue. Make sure before each conversation you have time to rid yourself of emotion. If not, it will be a confrontation.
  5. If the issue continues, deal with each event timely. The individual involved will see the non-fit and make a decision for herself that usually is the right one for her and the organization.

Leaders who embrace these steps become adept at mastering confrontation. Their employees change behavior to the positive or leave the organization gracefully.

The next time you are tempted to avoid or embrace a confrontational event, think it through a bit and turn your approach into a conversation. Watch the miracle that happens!


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