I’ve spoken often in these Leading Thoughts about how leaders must master the art of confrontation. Recently, many of you have asked for more help in this area. I’m happy to provide it. Here are some essential, practical steps.
First, deal with your own nervousness. Is it about how you are going to be perceived afterward? Is it about fear that you might be wrong on the facts? Is it that you feel pressured by others for a specific outcome? Whatever the reason, face it, resolve it, and get calm about it before you have the confrontation. Nervous, fearful people don’t confront well.
Second, decide your goal. Is it to help the person you are confronting improve? Is it to state facts before firing them? Confrontation can’t be like shotgun fire. It can’t be scattered. Decide what you are aiming for and align your approach with it.
Third, focus on the good that will come from the confrontation. Even a firing or a disciplinary action can be good for all involved ultimately. Keep this foremost in your mind. If Joe in shipping has been drinking again and you are about to suspend him for a season while paying for the help he needs, think about what this may mean for the rest of his life, his wife, or perhaps his children and grandchildren. This isn’t a disciplinary action. It’s a rescue. I’m not asking you to play mind games with yourself to get through it. I’m asking you to keep the larger good of this difficult moment in view.
Fourth, don’t go in “soft.” You want to be gentle and conduct yourself with compassion, but you need to be certain of your unmovable boundaries before you go into a confrontation. Jill has to improve by the end of the year or we’ll have to let her go. Bob cannot work here any longer. Shane may be a great writer but he’s a horrible manager. He’ll have to agree to a change in roles. You get the picture. Once you decide the inflexible matters in advance, you can be flexible about all other matters. In short, clarity about where your walls are allows you to fill the room between those walls with mercy.
Fifth, always have other people with you. There are two reasons. First, you need witnesses. Second, people usually behave better in a group than they do one on one.
Sixth, always point out the path for positive change: “Jim, we are letting you go because your anger problems have led to a violent episode. We firmly believe, though, that if you get on top of this problem in your life you can be a fine foreman. Here’s what you’ll need to do.”
Seventh, benevolently control the news of the confrontation. I’ve seen many leaders confront well but let their firms be damaged by undeserved negative spin. Communicate early and well. I tend to like the Simultaneous Strategy: “I need to tell you that our Personnel Director is down the hall right now letting Ken go. Ken got caught on video stealing. We are sad about this because we liked Ken and he did good work. Still, he’ll be leaving us. Now, I’m happy to answer any questions I can.”
I know confronting is not pleasant, yet I have seen such good come from well-executed confrontations that I believe it is an art worth mastering. I hope this Leading Thoughts gets you a bit closer to that goal.