Webster defines confrontation as, “to come face to face with, especially with defiance or hostility.” Not a fun conversation, which is why we usually take a gulp when we have to confront something or someone. In a recent training, a manager made the comment that it seemed to him the coaching process we were learning was simply a way “to confront softer.” He provided a great teaching opportunity to define the difference between confrontation, exploration and problem solving.
When we confront someone we usually come preloaded with judgment about being in the right and armed for battle to prove our point. There’s going to be a winner and a loser in this interaction and both parties usually do whatever they can to come out on top. In that mindset, winning (being right) becomes more important than the relationship, the consequences of a big withdrawal on the emotional bank account, or even finding a solution to the problem itself. We’ve worked up our courage and bravely march into battle with righteous anger (or at least irritation) at our side. This is a high stress, high volume (loud) activity where mouths are often working faster than brains. And inevitably, it hurts – people, processes and productivity. We behave in ways we normally don’t respect so we end up hurting ourselves while hurting others. This is a good way to prepare for a fight but not for a problem-solving session that could actually result in a positive change in behavior and/or processes. Although we often confuse the two, giving up hostility does not mean giving up accountability.
Quality work is the result of ensuring a set-up for success and the development and maintenance of positive relationships. As a result, when there are gaps in performance, attendance, or conduct that we must address (not confront), we prepare ahead of time so we can be clear and skillful on the way to resolving the problem. We begin with the assumption that we don’t know why the gap is occurring; only that it did. Assuming nothing, we approach the conversation with openness and curiosity, both absolutely essential for a true exploration of the context of the problem – not just its symptoms or your judgments about the person. We explore the context to ensure that a set up for success exists, meaning that the employee was able to accomplish the performance we are discussing. In every performance issue there are three players whose roles and responsibilities must be explored: the company, the leader, and the employee.
1) Did the company fulfill its role by providing:
• clear expectations,
• articulated procedures
2) Did the leader fulfill his/her role by:
• communicating expectations,
• providing feedback along the way,
• removing obstacles beyond the employee’s authority to manage,
• coaching the employee through challenges,
3) Did the employee fulfill his/her role by:
• using the set up for success provided to accomplish expectations,
• acting proactively to address challenges within their circle of responsibility,
• working cooperatively with peers and other departments,
• meeting time lines,
• working within the financial and procedural parameters,
Curiosity therefore, is essential in confronting performance gaps because our job is to ensure the successful accomplishment of goals and any one of the three players listed above can be the party creating the gap and the one responsible for the making the needed change. Letting go of prejudgments and viewing our employee as our partner in a problem-solving conversation is the mind-set we must adopt even if the problem clearly appears to be the employee’s. There can always be situations we don’t know about that could have prevented the performance and frustrated the employee as much as you with the failure to meet the expectation.
We must support a feeling of safety in our exploration, or we will attract defensiveness rather than transparency. We want as much information as possible about the performance gap and an employee who feels safe with us will be more inclined to provide that. Our words must accurately reflect our lack of prejudgment and our curiosity, in order to both resolve the problem and preserve the quality of the relationship. If we discover that the problem is indeed due to a failure on the employee’s part, we deliver any consequences (if needed) with a light at the end of the tunnel of improved performance, and a commitment to help our worker walk through it successfully.
Finally, don’t become the consequence for your employee’s failure by using emotionality (your anger, disappointment, withdrawal, etc.) as the punishment for performance failures which a confrontational mind-set comes preprogrammed to do. Don’t distract them from their own disappointment in the performance by overly broadcasting yours. Remember, you are a team and your success comes through theirs. A positive relationship, sustained even when there are difficulties and consequences must be meted out will always pay dividends
Exercise: The next time you feel the need to confront someone and have the correlating emotional symptoms of righteousness and hostility, take a breath. Give yourself a minute. Slow down.
• Think of the most desirable outcome you can imagine – long term. After all, you’ll need to work with this person again.
• Think how you would feel if you achieved that desired outcome with this person.
• Ask yourself if the confrontation you are moving towards could possibly bring about that result.
• Take the time to prepare the conversation and develop the mind-set that would get you to the desired result.
Sacrificing our justified irritation and the “right to strike” for a safe exploration and problem solving session, rewards us not only with our preserved integrity and growing ability to function as a leader, it fulfills our responsibility to create a positive and emotionally safe culture that is effective, responsive, and cohesive on the path to excellence.
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