Read an Excerpt
The Art of Constructive Confrontation
By John Hoover
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-71853-X
Chapter OneThe Case for Confrontation
We've all heard cynics say, "If you want to know how much difference you make in the grand scheme of things, put your hand in a bucket of water, pull it out, and see the impression you leave behind." That's true of water. Unless your hand is dirty enough to change the color of the water, there is no trace left behind. But the cynic's attempt to make a wet hand analogous to life in general-and your impact upon it-breaks down where the rubber meets the road: relationships.
Sure, if you back out to a wide shot of life, the impact individuals make in each other's lives and careers appears smaller. If you back out to a wide enough shot of our planet, say from the moon, Mount Saint Helens in full eruption is barely noticeable. Planet gazing won't accomplish much when professional success or failure is tied so directly to an immediate relationship. It's a matter of scale, perspective, and proportion. Although interpersonal confrontation is a factor in all relationships, this book deals with the scale, perspective, and proportion of working relationships between team members and team leaders. The relationships dealt with through the circle of confrontation involve people between whom there is a direct line of reporting.
The human psyche doesn't heal its wounds as easily and effortlessly as water does as it conforms to the shapeof its container. Nor does the human psyche forget the most elevating and fulfilling moments in life. Unlike water, the human psyche resists conforming to the shape of its container. That makes working with human beings a trickier proposition, more unpredictable and wrought with potential peril than filling buckets with water. It also holds more promise for growth and development. When's the last time water learned a new trick?
Confrontation's Bad Rap
The term confrontation is considered by some to be synonymous with conflict. Other pejorative terms associated with confrontation include battle, contest, crisis, dispute, showdown, or strife. It's true that opposing ideas or beliefs, when trying to occupy the same space in the universe, can (and probably will) lead to a conflictual confrontation inspiring diversity advocates to plaintively plead, "Can't we all just get along?"
Perhaps we can. But people with diverse ideas and beliefs must successfully confront their differences, not merely deny they exist, if there is to be any hope of acceptance, inclusion, and co-existence. Despite attempts by ever-optimistic and naive souls to wish the differences away, people with diverse ideas, beliefs, and opinions must consciously choose peaceful and productive coexistence over combative alternatives. If people of diverse ideas, beliefs, and opinions are to live and work together, they must confront their differences instead of each other. It's not unlike the old slogan: "Attack the problem, not the person."
One enormous difference between conflictual versus constructive confrontation is timing. Confrontation, as most people have come to use the term, means addressing divisive issues after they have caused dissonance, discord, disconnects, and disputes. Diverse ideas, beliefs, and opinions, if not confronted sooner, will surely become conflicts later. Diverse ideas, beliefs, and opinions can be so extreme and polarizing that they will never reside peacefully in the same vicinity.
If there is any hope of "getting along," it will only be made possible by the sooner-rather-than-later confrontation of the issues. This book is not about avoiding confrontation; it's about using confrontation constructively.
Negative Confrontations No More
The best way to avoid negative confrontations is to confront. More accurately, the best way to avoid negative confrontations is to purposefully and skillfully engage in constructive confrontation. Conversely, the best way to guarantee negative confrontations is to avoid confrontation and hope the negativity will just go away. Sorry. Sooner or later, confrontation will become inevitable. All of the energy and resources used up by avoiding confrontation will more than likely ensure confrontation. The art of constructive confrontation will either work for you, or you'll be doomed to the type of negative confrontations that most human beings will do anything to avoid.
Confrontation, the way the term is used here, is neutral. Confrontation, in and of itself, is not positive or negative. It becomes positive or negative depending on whether it's used proactively and preemptively or whether it becomes a consequence of neglect. Almost any unfortunate, unpleasant, after-the-fact confrontation could be described as "something that should have been confronted a long time ago."
In light of the negative synonyms for confrontation already listed, there are positive terms associated with confrontation, words that include meeting, encounter, face down, face up to, stand up to, meet eyeball-to-eyeball, or withstand. Problems in organizational life are dealt with faster, cheaper, and better when they are anticipated and prepared for. The best use of meetings also includes planning and preparing to meet what lies ahead. Every great plan has at least one contingency, so problems that will potentially be encountered won't derail the plan.
Negative influences need to be faced down, or neutralized. Realities of the internal and external marketplace need to be faced up to, or recognized. Undue criticisms must be stood up to, lest they become debilitating. Any influence that threatens or contradicts the health and well-being of the organization and its internal and external stakeholders must be faced eyeball-to-eyeball. Shouldn't anything that needs facing be faced straight on? Doesn't any worthwhile task, assignment, project, or initiative potentially encounter hazards and challenges that need to be withstood?
That's what constructive confrontation is all about. It doesn't mean chatting about something, shooting the breeze, kibitzing, or navel-gazing. Constructive confrontation means premeditated, methodical, systematic, and well-orchestrated efforts to do the following:
Get after something before it gets after you. Position yourself and your team members for maximum productivity and performance with minimal margin for error. Minimize exposure by confronting contingencies in advance. Shed excess baggage and burden before the seas get stormy. Decrease conflict while increasing accountability.
There are a wide variety of benefits the circle of confrontation will afford you. As conversations lead to commitment, commitment leads to covenant, and covenant becomes the basis for constructive confrontation, the stage is set to get the most from what you have. That beats the heck out of paying more and getting less. Your team members are begging for responsible, organized, and effective leadership. They won't come right out and ask for it. But when you ask what went wrong or why their performance tanked, you can bet your bottom dollar that they'll blame the failure on the absence of responsible, organized, and effective leadership.
Don't hold your breath waiting for them to blame themselves. To do so would be painful and possibly even humiliating; except for the masochist, who wants to beat him- or herself up. Despite the fact that they'll accept responsibility for any bad thing that happens, whether or not they have anything to do with it, who really wants to work with masochists? Even small children have a natural tendency to avoid self-indictment. When provided complete indemnification and assurances that there will be no punishment, youngsters will still answer the question, "Who did this?" with, "I dunno," "The dog," "The monster," "My sister," "A burglar," or "President (fill in the blank)."
Constructive confrontation will focus and inspire your team members like nothing else, whoever is on your bus. When people bemoan a lack of leadership, this is what they're truly asking for:
Someone to listen and understand their issues, even help them identify issues they might not know they have Someone who will stand beside them and fight the good fight shoulder-to-shoulder Someone who has their personal and professional growth and development at heart Someone who will provide guidance, instruction, and encouragement whenever needed Someone who will provide support and backup when others question the team member's motives and methods Someone to set boundaries, blow through barriers, and commit to staying the course alongside the team member, beginning to end
Constructive confrontation differs from conventional confrontation in that it's anticipatory, or pro-active, rather than reactive. It can spell the difference between coming off as a hero or an idiot. When problems arise, the hero says, "Have no fear, we've planned for this contingency." The idiot says, "Gee, I never thought that would happen." The truth is that the idiot never gave any thought to potential hazards and obstacles. He assumed, and we all know the story about the donkey.
More than any other distinguishing feature, constructive confrontation is grounded in careful planning and preparation, considering all options and anticipating as many potential problems as possible. Socially, a lot of hip folks make fun of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, preferring instead to party with their idiot friends. Why not? Idiots are predictably unpredictable and largely spontaneous, always looking for a good time. Meanwhile the scouts are carefully planning-always prepared.
Next time you get stuck in a blizzard on the turnpike, with whom would you rather be carpooling-idiots or scouts? Next time you veer off the ski slope into the woods and twist your ankle, who do you want to rescue you-a ski patrol person who was a scout or a ski patrol person still hung over from last night's idiot-fest at the lodge? We all ride trains or drive our cars over dozens of bridges, large and small, every day. Do you want to drive or ride over bridges built by architects, engineers, and construction contractors who anticipate potential problems and design solutions into the structures, or do you want to have the bridge collapse beneath you?
This isn't a far-fetched analogy. If a bridge collapses beneath a train or automobile traffic or if the wings fall off of a commercial jetliner, confrontation will follow. But by then, it's conventional, conflict-oriented, accusatory, negative, blame-placing, find-a-scapegoat, search-for-the-guilty, and punish-the-innocent confrontation. No thanks.
Wouldn't you prefer the confrontation to have taken place before things started to fall apart ... literally? Like granny used to say, "A stitch in time saves nine." As the old industrial maxim teaches us, "There never seems to be enough time or money to do it right the first time, but there's always enough time and money to do it over again." Proper planning almost always makes things turn out more pleasantly, and proper planning always includes constructive confrontation.
Some use the term constructive confrontation to describe a positive approach to after-the-fact confrontation. No matter when confrontation takes place, you should attempt to go through positive steps, like defining the problem, expressing how you feel about the situation, reflect to the other party what you understand his or her position to be, and find a compromise, if possible. None of this removes or diminishes the fact that postponing or neglecting regular, conscious, constructive confrontation allowed things to tank in the first place. None of the aforementioned positive behaviors, if applied after the fact, will make up for the time, productivity, resources, and money lost by not staying on top of the game.
Given what you've learned so far about constructive confrontation, you can begin considering a wide range of what ifs:
What if structural and aeronautical architects, engineers, and construction contractors didn't anticipate problems? What if they didn't preemptively confront the challenges and potential perils of construction from conception through completion? What if teachers and coaches didn't make lesson plans and game plans before class or the big game? How valued would you feel if your teacher passed out a test before giving an assignment or teaching? What if teachers didn't confront students who are not performing up to their capabilities? Who's getting cheated? The student and the society that will be forced to subsidize what the student is unable to contribute later in life. What if your athletic coach expected you to show up for the game without holding any practices or running you through any drills or exercises? What if athletic coaches didn't confront athletes who settle for performance below their capabilities? What if vocal coaches, acting coaches, or executive coaches didn't confront the people who are counting on them to confront lackluster performance? What if executives committed enormous physical, financial, and human resources to projects without a well-thought-out strategic plan? What if they flew strictly by the seat of their wardrobe? That's simply some peoples' style. But the risks they take jeopardize more than their own success. The more that rides on your decisions and execution, the more you owe it to the organization you work for and the people (internal and external) who are affected by your actions to take well-thought-out strategic actions. What if project managers, supervisors, managers, and executives engaged their team members regularly with what ifs? Inquisitiveness is a big part of constructive confrontation. We should never stop asking "What if?" or acting "As if."
Talk Show Shrinks
Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Dr. Phil McGraw, and other media therapists make a habit of compressing therapy that ordinarily takes months or years into minutes. In other words, they deal more in headlines than details. Call it compressed therapy. After a four-alarm diagnosis, they immediately cut to the chase and begin confronting their callers and guests. That's where the rubber meets the road. When time is constrained, musing about problems gives way to the confrontation. People who call in or otherwise agree to be on the show are seeking confrontation because nothing else seems to be working.
Unless the on-air diagnosis is an epiphany of epic proportions, the solutions are found in simple behavior modification. Simple to describe, that is. If the appropriate behaviors, healthy habits, and productive activities were easy, or resonated with the caller's essential nature, they wouldn't need confrontation. If the radio or television therapist called the callers daily with reminders and encouragement about the right thinking and behavior, there wouldn't be as many fires to put out on the air. As a practitioner of constructive confrontation, think of yourself as a preemptive talk show shrink.
Anyone in the mental health field knows the road to recovery is difficult and requires new ways of thinking and behaving. For some it's easier than it is for others. Some people face mountains of problems while others face molehills. In any case, getting from where you are now to where you want to be requires change, even if it's only more effort. More anything is a change. Meaningful, purposeful change isn't going to happen without constructive confrontation. More specifically, change won't be sustained without constructive confrontation to keep goals and purpose in the front seat of our consciences.
The Courage to Confront
Excerpted from The Art of Constructive Confrontation by John Hoover Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.