photo of workplace with two people having a conversation about how to improve confrontation in the workplace

Organizations often ask us to help them improve Confrontation Conversations in the workplace. While we certainly can help, our first question is: What’s your “feedback culture” like?

Although leaders admit to struggling when it comes to confrontation, they usually, ardently believe they excel with giving feedback. Why? Because, managers complete unilateral performance reviews a couple of times per year. It’s an understandable assumption since the biannual performance review has been the gold standard for organizational feedback for decades. 

In reality, this example signifies a weak feedback culture, an is the most common reason leaders think they need help with confrontation. In this context, confrontation, serves as a band-aid and not the cure. Too often, we speak with leaders who believe confrontation must be an integral part of giving feedback. In fact, many people use these two terms interchangeably. 

For example, consider what receiving this “feedback” feels like to an employee, it can be taken as purely negative. For them, the old saying, “no news is good news,” becomes truer than ever. We know that millennials and younger generations, crave genuine, constructive feedback. The problem isn’t feedback itself; it’s how you handle it. 

According to Gallup’s Global Workforce Report, 68% of employees admitted, they would work harder if they felt their efforts were better recognized. Translation: without feedback, employees are disengaging and this leads to voluntary turnover. Again, employees want feedback, perhaps not the kind you’ve been offering.

To gain a clearer picture of what effective feedback looks like, we need to first, identify the key differences between effective feedback and how most leaders handle confrontation.

Confrontation Gone Wrong

Most leaders see confrontation as a necessary evil. They use it as a means of redirecting wayward employees, not unlike cracking a whip to keep a horse moving at the desired pace and on the right path. This kind of so-called confrontation comes at a cost. It demonstrates a lack of trust in employees’ abilities and decision making, and it paints a picture of an insecure leader.

Think about it, as a leader, if you don’t trust your employees, you could, ever-so-subtly, suggest that you don’t trust your own abilities, when it comes to hiring, placement, training or general leadership. In other words, when leaders feel the need to incessantly “confront” employees, they inadvertently communicate self-doubt. And let’s be honest, who wants to follow an insecure leader?

Confrontation is sometimes necessary but when it is necessary, it is often handled poorly, and often mistaken for feedback. This is a cardinal error, that you must correct, in order to improve your office culture and re-engage your employees. 

Here are three major red flags, that suggest, your poorly handled “confrontation” conversations are masquerading as “feedback.”

  1. Your conversations are reactive. Waiting until something is wrong to offer “feedback” is a huge red flag. It shows a lack of foresight and neglects the relationship-building component that is crucial for a highly functioning team. Additionally, reactive conversations not only create employee discomfort, but they frequently backfire by causing your team to put up a protective barrier against you.
  2. Your conversations incorporate overt or implied criticism. When a conversation is reactive, it’s almost impossible to avoid layering criticism into the mix. Sometimes, the criticism is obvious: “You never turn these reports in on time.” Sometimes it’s not so obvious: a frustrated sigh or avoiding eye contact. Whatever the case, the knee-jerk reaction most people have is defensiveness. And when people become defensive, they’re anything but receptive.
  3. Your conversations are combative. As your criticism shuts down your team’s receptiveness, a common response is to escalate. When this happens, leaders often resort to making threats (e.g., no chance of promotion or a bonus, a write-up, or even termination) to force their team members to get in line. While this tactic might appear to work in the short term, it ultimately severs any ties that might exist between a leader and their team.

Understanding confrontation and conducting those conversations the right way is an invaluable skill. But those conversations frequently don’t go so well (see the list above), and they can usually be avoided with a more productive feedback culture.

Feedback Conversations

Let’s just dispel the myth now; chalking your feedback up to performance reviews and calling it a day, doesn’t work. This is the central reason why so many leaders think they need to ramp up confrontation. But in reality, they’d fair better if they invested more time and energy in nurturing their feedback culture. Why? Because it strengthens and enriches relationships on your teams, improves performance and helps solidify employers as competent and secure leaders. Bottom line, your organization benefits from the rise in employee engagement that this kind of culture breeds. 

If you’re wondering whether or not your feedback culture is operating at peak performance, here are some clear indicators you’re doing things right.

  1. You’re checking in with your people regularly. We’re not talking about twice a year when review time comes rolling around. We’re talking daily, face-to-face conversations. In other words, you’re focused on developing relationships with your team members, which as we all know, take time and consistent effort.
  2. Your feedback conversations are open, honest and clear. When it comes to openness and honesty, it has to flow in both directions. But you, as the leader, are the one to establish this as a standard practice. If you want your team to remain open to your feedback, model it for them and demonstrate your openness to theirs. Alongside honesty, comes clarity. It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s sometimes challenging to execute in the moment. Nevertheless, your communication cannot be cryptic if you expect it to get results.
  3. Your feedback mostly focuses on the positive. So often we see leaders equating feedback with identifying problems. While identifying problems is an important aspect of feedback, it shouldn’t be the only thing–or even the primary thing–you focus on. In fact, you’ll have greater chances of encouraging employee engagement if you give greater attention to what’s working well.

Understanding the differences between confrontation and feedback paves the way for you to really begin developing and maintaining an effective feedback culture. Without a doubt, this work, is the number one way to improve confrontation conversations. More than that, it helps you create a highly functioning team and organization as well as improve overall performance.

Do you need support to enhance your feedback culture or tackle confrontation? Find out more in our Fierce Feedback program and our Fierce Confrontation program. 

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