An employee violates a safety rule. Another is habitually ten minutes late to work. You become aware that a worker spends way too much time making personal phone calls. One employee has delivered incomplete paperwork to your desk three weeks in a row. There is an inappropriate poster in an employee’s work area. You must address a worker with a hygiene issue that others have reported to you. This list could be endless.
These situations all have one thing in common: As a supervisor, it’s your job to solve the problem. That’s what you do. You must confront a person about a problem.
If your organization conducts periodic performance reviews, as a supervisor it is likely that this is your responsibility. Bad performance reviews, delivered poorly, have been cited as the “trigger” in a number of incidences of workplace violence. In the presence of other precursors, good skills in this area can prevent a poor performance review from becoming a precipitating event for a violent incident.
People generally dislike confrontation, and the word itself carries some negative connotation. One of the largest retailers in the United States has even resorted to euphemistically eliminating the words “discipline” and “correction” in their managerial training materials, and labeling such action “coaching.” Employees aren’t fooled, however, as the necessity for three “coachings” can be grounds for dismissal.
This negative connotation is unfortunate. For purposes of this discussion, here is a definition:
“Confrontation is to ask another to change their behavior, attititude or policy, or to engage in dialogue about a problem in which you need their cooperation.”
For the most part, our approach to confrontation, whether personal or professional, tends to be guided by intuitive patterns that we developed by mimicking people around us as we grew up. I believe this accounts for much of the negative connotation surrounding confrontation. Most of the time those intuitive patterns are not very helpful. Multiple studies
ranging from as far back as 1976 demonstrate that managers spend anywhere from 30% to as much as 70% dealing with the effects of conflict. Much of that conflict is generated by unskilled confrontation styles that create more problems than they solve and leave resentment and actively disengaged workers in their wake.
A basic human principle
Being skilled at constructive confrontation requires that we first understand the psychology of why a poorly executed confrontation damages a relationship instead of creating a positive dialogue. All escalated confrontation is rooted in defensiveness.
We all have a self-view. It is a set of assumptions about our personality, our intelligence, our skills, our relationships, our values, etc. That has been understood for centuries. What was not generally understood until research by psychologist William Swann, is that everything we experience in life gets filtered through our self-view in order to have meaning. Without that filtering it’s not possible for us to assign meaning to anything that happens to or around us. So when we interpret other people’s behavior (such as in a confrontation) as challenging the validity of our self-view…when what they say or do seems to suggest that we are not as smart, not as prepared, not as competent, not as worthy of respect, not as nice as we see ourselves, it doesn’t just challenge our self-view…it challenges the validity of our view of the world. Most of the time this results in a brief flash of a special kind of anxiety that Heinz Kohut calls, Disintegration Anxiety. We instantly respond to that anxiety by defending our self-view. We become “defensive.”1
Why does it matter?
Positive confrontation/correction skills that invite people into dialogue to solve problems collaboratively are part of a larger skill set that opens the door to better employee engagement, workplace morale’ and lower turnover. A pattern of poor skills on the part of a supervisor contributes to just the opposite. Extremely poor confrontation styles can fertilize the ground for Type 3 workplace violence, and was even cited as a contributing factor in the Edmond, Oklahoma post office shooting in 1986.2