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Confrontation... What are You Afraid of?

Let’s face it, most people avoid confrontation. And yet, the one thing that will make your company great is successfully working through conflict with healthy confrontation.

If have two or more people in your company, there will be conflict. The more people you employ, the more conflict. The more diverse your employees, the more conflict. While conflict can be stressful and destructive, it’s also the source of creativity, innovation, and growth. How you handle conflict will be the difference between growth or destruction.

In this blog post, I’ll highlight how you can handle conflict in a way that will grow instead of destroy your business.

Why do People Avoid Confrontation?

People avoid confrontation because they have experienced pain from previous confrontations. Their emotions got the better of them and they said something they regretted. They’ll often remember when relationships they valued got destroyed because of what they said. In many cases, they’ll quickly play out a scenario of how it will go if they bring up their viewpoint, and then back away.

In a work environment, the stakes are much higher. Your employer can fire you for any reason; and you can leave the company for any reason. With these stakes, most will avoid confrontation all-together.

What’s the Advantage of Handling Conflict Successfully?

With so much to lose, what is there to gain by handling conflict successfully? The best way to communicate this advantage is with a little story.

Jack is an engineer who gives Jane machine part designs. Jack is expected to create five new machine part designs a week; and he always feels like he is behind. He’s overwhelmed with the workload, but fears that if he says something, he’ll lose his job.

Jane is an AutoCAD technician who works at an engineering firm. She’ll often get designs from Jack for machine parts with a 1-day deadline. It takes a minimum of 2-days to draft the design for the parts she is given. She thinks that if she complains, she’ll lose her job because her boss will think she is not a good worker.

Jim is the salesman who relies on drawings from Jane to put into brochures to convince manufacturers to use their machine parts in their equipment. He feels like he is waiting too long for new part designs to make it to his desk to get his brochures to manufacturers in a timely fashion. He loses a sale because his competition is getting concept designs done quickly. He sees how hard Jane and Jack are working and doesn’t want to tell them to speed up. So, he keeps his complaints to himself.

You can see with each story; everyone thinks they are being nice by not telling the other person their true dilemma. Let’s see what could happen, if these three deal with the conflict at hand.

Jim tells Jane that he needs drawings sooner so that he can beat their competition. Jane is frazzled and tells Jim she’s working as hard as and fast as she can. As it is, she’s working free overtime. If Jack would give her part designs sooner, she could deliver the designs sooner to Jim. Jack overhears the conversation and explodes, “Jane, you have no clue how hard I’m working to get you these part designs done only to see you two failing to close deals with part buyers!”

Okay… that is why these three avoided conflict in the first place. You can see that this conversation is not headed to a good place. It’s driven by emotion and defending personal territory, instead of collaboration. This emotion is born out of trying to protect your personal territory rather than considering the larger picture.

Productive Conflict

Is it any wonder that we avoid conflict when it tends to devolve quickly into hurtful arguing? Let’s think about how to handle conflict in a productive way. The first step is to follow a process that allows the truth to be told without playing the “blame game”.

Here is one possible process for problem solving:

  • Step 1 – Identify the Problem – Work as a team to identify the real problem.

  • Step 2 – Brainstorm Solutions – Allow team members to come up with random ideas to fix the problem.

  • Step 3 – Pick a Solution – Use a narrowing down process to pick the best solution.

  • Step 4 – Execute the Solution – Execute the solution that you’ve agreed on.

  • Step 5 – Measure Results – Determine how the solution worked and make adjustments based on experience.

The Right Way to Handle Conflict

Let’s consider Jim, Jane, and Jack handling their conflict in this new productive process. Emily is the sales manager (Jim’s boss) who has been critical of Jim for failing to close sales. Jim complains to Emily about untimely product designs for his brochure. Emily decides to facilitate a problem-solving process with Jim, Jack, and Jane. She hears the same frustration that was expressed in the disorganized conflict that happened before.

After deeper questioning and discussion, it turns out that Jim doesn’t need final designs to include in his sales brochures. He only needs concept designs. As it turns out, concept designs take a fraction of the time that Jane and Jack had been taking to render final part designs for Jim. After several iterations of solutions, the team decides that they can produce a brochure in one day, when it had been taking a week for a half-done brochure. Since Jane had the skills to create better graphics, she would produce the brochure and free up Jim to make more prospecting calls.

Conflict & Confrontation is a GOOD THING

As you can see by our fictional story, innovative solutions develop out of properly handled conflict. Most employees have great ideas, but those ideas are confined to their individual responsibilities. When they can see the bigger picture, they become more empathetic to others, and creativity flourishes.

Culture Matters

There are three corporate cultures that affect how conflict is handled: 1) Authoritative; 2) Clique; and 3) Empowered.

Authoritative cultures stifle conflict in favor of rank in a hierarchy. The CEO commands his managers and the managers command their staff. Descension from subordinate ranks is frowned upon and can get you fired. The advantage of an authoritative organization is that it has singular purpose and direction and can be quite efficient if the people in authority know what they’re doing.

Clique cultures develop when there is no value given to authority. Authority figures act more as administrative assistants than thought leaders. Cliques develop among like-minded individuals. The company tends to go in the direction dictated by the largest clique. Conflict is allowed but is often destructive or one-sided.

Empowered cultures strike a balance between singular vision and conflict. In regulated cultures, organizations create forums to handle conflict. They create processes to use confrontation in a productive manner. These are the organizations that achieve corporate visions while empowering their employees to participate in that vision.

As the leader of your business, you must foster an Empowered Culture to use conflict and confrontation in a positive way. Encourage new ideas, and then use a process to turn ideas into reality. If you fail to use a process, the strong will be heard and the weak will be silenced. This is NOT a culture that will grow your business in a healthy way. Instead, encourage healthy confrontation so that all ideas are given a chance to grow.


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