Confrontation in the Workplace

by Jimmy L. Smith
Jim Smith Quality

Don’t avoid confrontation… deal with it constructively.

During much of my career, confrontation was very much “in your face.” It was clear and present. Managers and coworkers were direct, and at times forceful, in saying what they felt needed to be said. Words were used like an axe, and “let the chips fall where they may.”

Harsh, you might think, but things were out in the open. Everyone knew the situation, problems got fixed, and things moved forward. If someone’s feelings got hurt, which happened often, they “sucked it up,” learned from the situation so that it wouldn’t happen again, and moved on.

I recall a time early in my career when my manager was very blunt in what he saw as an error in judgement. He looked me straight in the eye, made his point in stern language and explained his clear expectations. After taking a breath, he calmed his voice and said, “Let’s get a cup of coffee. I’d like to get your opinion on another matter.” Nothing personal—a learning opportunity which stuck with me the rest of my career.

Things have changed in the workplace, as all forms of confrontation seem to be fading away.

Avoiding Confrontation
Confrontation is a way of life as a child. It’s not uncommon for children to talk back to adults; siblings fuss and argue with each other. However, for reasons beyond full understanding, we begin to wrap protective layers around that natural awareness of the urge to confront situations, or even people. As we grow into adulthood, confrontation seems to become complicated and unwelcome.

Most people today try to avoid confrontation, which might be somewhat related to the ease of litigation in society. Consider something as simple as annual performance evaluations. Prior to the 1990s, performance evaluations were a time for manager and employee to have a constructive discussion of what happened during the year and what needs to happen in the coming year.

The more effective managers had at least quarterly one-on-one discussions so both parties fully understood how things were going. These discussions typically led to greater understanding and agreements which resulted in effective evaluation sessions.

Many managers today don’t give meaningful performance evaluations for a couple reasons: (1) They are afraid to say what they really think for fear of an angry response; and (2) Anything they say or write can be used against the manager or the organization.

What’s the result? Mediocrity and frustration. It can lead to an employee thinking they are doing a good job when they aren’t. Managers and coworkers may “hint” that something is not going well, but the employee is thinking, “My last performance evaluation was okay, so I’m doing fine.”

People can spend a good portion of their career underperforming, but never figuring out why they weren’t perceived as a high performer. Many coworkers knew why, but no one wanted to confront them with negative news. Result: (1) The person didn’t realize their professional aspirations; and (2) The company didn’t receive full value from this person’s efforts.

Constructive Confrontation
Things have to be said, but it doesn’t always have to be so confrontational that it’s like butting heads. People can get hurt when they feel under personal attack. When this happens, they may carry around destructive resentment rather than deal with a difficult situation head-on. Problems only fester and get worse, bad feelings run rampant, and everyone suffers. It doesn’t have to be this way.

In organizational workplaces, most everyone recognizes the value of knowing how to confront a situation—to effectively go face-to-face with negative feedback, unwelcome news or uncomfortable questions. In group projects, for instance, team members are encouraged to value diverging viewpoints for the betterment of the outcome. Seldom does anyone feel threatened in this environment because this is seen as constructive confrontation.

Constructive confrontation is not mean-spirited. It’s not done with loud voices, by being unpleasant or by exhibiting rude behavior. Equally important, it’s not designed to affix blame. Remember: attack the problem, not the individual.

There can be a host of problems in the business world. Orders get delayed or lost. Machines stop working. Quality problems arise. Not enough resources to do the job. People don’t perform well. Unhappy customers. Such problems produce conflicts, but the organization and their people have to discover the root cause and solve the problem.

Constructive confrontation can accelerate problem-solving. People must be direct and often deal with people face-to-face, as soon as possible, to keep the problem from getting out of control. It’ll encourage everyone to concentrate on the problem, not on the individuals caught up in it.

Many people seem to think it is impolite to tackle anything or anyone head-on, even in a business environment. However, it is the essence of corporate health to bring a problem to the surface—even if this requires a confrontation—so it can be dealt with as quickly as possible. Don’t avoid the confrontation; deal with it constructively. iBi

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