Confrontation: crucial to workplace success

Get it off your chest

“To avoid argument, I put off certain discussions." “When someone misses a commitment, I generally let him or her off the hook.” “I find myself bringing up the same issue over and over.”

Sound familiar?

Those statements are from a self-assessment survey designed by leadership author Joseph Grenny in Crucial Confrontations, a book he co-wrote.

In an interview on (free registration required), Grenney says deliberately avoiding confrontations can cause major problems.

“Organisational problems, political problems, trust problems … at the root of almost all chronic problems are issues people are not confronting or are not confronting well enough.”

If we put together the first two statements at the beginning of this column, Grenney says we’re describing a persistent weakness within organisations in confronting problems.

“It is the primary problem we face in improving our organisations.”

Regarding the third statement, Grenney says that if you are continually confronting the same problem with the same person, it’s because you are holding the wrong conversation.

“Those who are brilliant in confrontations … tend to find a way to help resolve the issue or they know when they have to escalate to the next level. That skill of picking the right issue to confront is key to success.”

Grenney says the research for his book revealed that people are equally as likely to avoid a crucial confrontation with a peer or direct report as they are with their boss.

“We start with the assumption that it will be uncomfortable and then we back into it with reasons for not holding the confrontation.”

He says people who are good at dealing with confrontation do it before they get into a crucial confrontation.

“They choose what and if. They select the right problem to deal with.”

For example, if you are upset about a pattern of behaviour over time, be specific, otherwise you risk being bogged down in the details of the most recent incident.

“We walk away unresolved because our real issue wasn’t that it was done just now, but that it had been done for a year and a half.”

Grenney found that the more “positional power” people used, the less likely they were to succeed. Rather than relying on imposed consequences, those best at crucial confrontations rely on natural consequences.

“Their skill and power is their insight. They help people connect their current behaviour that isn’t working with consequences that they do care about or will care about.”

Another author, Tom Jones, writing in the San Diego Source, advocates holding regular “confrontation meetings” with subordinates as a way to get anger-producing issues on the table.

“When properly facilitated, a confrontation session could resolve most of the anger that shows up as inappropriate behaviours in the workplace.”

Jones says companies which follow this advice will see results in the form of more open communications, reduced conflict and improved management- staff relations.

Mary Rau-Foster, author, laywer and certified mediator, writes on that the workplace is a fertile breeding ground for conflict because of the dynamics and interdependency of the employee-to-employee, customer-to-employee, and employee-to-outside vendor relationships.

She says there are two types of conflict in the work place: substantive conflict and personality-based conflict.

“The substantive conflict can be dealt with by addressing the specific problem that is the subject of the conflict. For example, Lucy can not complete her report until John gets all of the numbers to her. Lucy believes that John procrastinates until the last minute, forcing her to do a rushed job, which increases her stress and makes her fear that she will look bad to the boss. John feels Lucy puts too much pressure on both of them and sets unrealistic deadlines.”

Rau-Foster says that as the conflict increases, productivity and efficiency decrease. A manager needs to intervene and mediate, but ideally any problem resolved by and between the two employees “can only serve to empower them and to anchor effective conflict resolution techniques that can be used at work...”

With personality-based conflict, it may be that employees need to be told that they must learn to work together — regardless of their differences — or leave the company.

Mills is a Dunedin-based writer. Email her at

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