Confronting People and “Ground Rules”

Lisa Junker already made reference to the interview with psychologist Howard Gardner in this month’s Harvard Business Review. She focused on his comments about “anti-mentors,” the people who teach you about leadership by doing the WRONG things.

Toward the end of the interview, he is asked a question about “speaking the truth to power.” His response is interesting.

It is not easy to confront offending individuals. But it is essential if you want to have an effective organization, be it a family or a Fortune 500 company.

I break the quote here, because I want everyone to read that sentence again. Confrontation is essential. There is a part of our brain that tells us, often subconsciously, that confrontation is bad. It is to be avoided. But in truth it is essential. Gardner continues:

Two factors make it easier. First, you need a firm belief that what you are doing is right for the organization. Second, you don’t wait for egregious behavior. As soon as you –or others—see warning signs, you confront them, not in an accusatory fashion but in a fact-finding mode. If a person has been warned or counseled, it is much easier to take action the next time a wrong is identified.

Hmmm. Much easier said than done. Sometimes it is very hard to be sure what you are doing is right for the organization. It’s just not that clear, at least not in the moment. So do you confront in those cases? I think so, but I guess it’s not “easier” as Gardner suggests.

And confronting people “not in an accusatory fashion but in a fact-finding mode” sounds great in the abstract, but a lot tougher in real life. Even when you intend to be fact-finding, people often hear it as accusatory. It can be done, but it’s a hard line to walk. I agree, though, that if you can create a pattern of early confrontation, the later ones are easier.

This is where an explicit conversation about groundrules can really help. I know "groundrules" are almost trite these days (no interrupting, respect each other, blah, blah…). I am talking about a frank conversation about things like confronting each other and expressing disagreement. We can take the edge off these things if we talk about them ahead of time and figure out ways to support each other in actually staying in the conversations when they start. When things get tense, you can refer back to the groundrules discussion and say "This is one of those tough conversations that we said are important to have on this team," and that WILL make the conversation a bit easier.