Years ago, we helped a large international client find a new CEO. In discussing a candidate – whom we thought was a great fit – we mentioned he believed in healthy confrontation. The founder immediately pushed back. He said, “I don’t want someone who will argue all the time and be a jerk to the team.” Maybe naively, we thought his approach to conflict was a no-brainer, a check in the yes column. Instead, we found ourselves explaining why they should continue to consider the candidate given his comfort with conflict.
For many people, confrontation has an unfortunate negative connotation. We often hear clients say things like, I couldn’t tell him that, it would hurt his feelings, it would ruin our relationship, it would upset him, or that would be mean. We always disagree – even if we have never met the person in question – because confrontation is a necessary part of any good, healthy relationship. And this is especially true in business.
And here’s the kicker…the confrontation, which is derived from Latin, simply means challenging each other face to face. But yes, that can be uncomfortable for some.
So why do we need confrontation?
We need it because we often differ in opinion. Those differences are important because they help us avoid groupthink and other team dysfunctions.
So then why do we avoid confrontation?
We avoid it because for many of us it’s uncomfortable to merely disagree. And if it becomes emotional – as it often does – it becomes doubly uncomfortable.
What happens when we don’t ever have confrontation?
When we just avoid what is uncomfortable, our team can develop what Patrick Lencioni, author of Five Dysfunctions of a Team, labels “artificial harmony.” In our work with teams, we have unfortunately seen artificial harmony countless times. In group meetings people interact, laugh and agree. But once the meeting is over they run to the boss, complain and recant what they agreed to.
So, how can we best confront?
There are several things you can do to make confrontation productive.
- Don’t expect it to be calm and factual. We are all human and all of us can get somewhat emotional when others disagree with us. It would be nice if we didn’t, but again, that pesky human being thing keeps getting in the way. And when we get emotional, we sometimes exaggerate and become irrational. It’s normal. Don’t let any of that stop the conversation.
- If you get emotional, talk about it. You want to control your anger and disappointment. One of the best ways is to voice it. Look, I’m frankly disappointed that you don’t understand me said in a calm tone is a good way to acknowledge your feelings and control them at the same time.
- Keep it your issue. The tendency to say I’m not the only one who… is understandable – and maybe even factual – but, if those other people aren’t in the room, don’t speak for them.
- Try to go into a problem-solving mode. Treating the confronted issue as a problem to solve rather than a personal thing is more productive and it is also calming. Okay, you think we shouldn’t bid this kind of job. What kinds of guidelines for bid submission do you suggest we use?
- Don’t focus on winning. This is not a contest; this is work. When we get aroused, some of us get confused or lose a lot of verbal ability. Even if we don’t, most of us are not at our best. Help the other person out – it benefits you.
- Don’t take the position of ‘it won’t do any good.’ It will be good if you can get the disagreement smoothed out, even better if a third point of view emerges but – this is key – it will be good even if the other parties remain intransigent.
- Don’t employ sarcasm. When emotions are high, swearing and joking don’t help anything and often indicate an underlying lack of confidence.
- End on a positive. Something usually comes out of disagreement so state that. Okay, now I have a clearer picture of some of the issues.
To say that this is not our first rodeo, is an understatement. In team after team, the ones who get issues out in the open and spend an uncomfortable hour confronting them, almost always find their effectiveness and teamwork goes up, anxiety drops and the rest of the work week becomes a lot more comfortable and productive.
Robyn Porterfield is Managing Principal and Bob Rose Principal of Dallas-based Rose Porterfield Group. They consult to executive teams in a wide range of business areas dealing with people at work.