two co-workers handling confrontation in the workplace

Life in the workplace has become complicated. Rapidly changing economic challenges force quicker decision-making to remain productive. Couple this with the rise of workplace flexibility for employees, leaders struggle to create positive culture leading to desirable outcomes. Learn how to handle confrontation in the workplace like a pro.

Unprecedented, is the way of the future and companies need leaders who can lead and thrive during times of change. Successful leaders are transparent about opportunities and challenges during rapid change. They address the stress of change with productive conversations, so the culture doesn’t get toxic. But there is a problem:

Conflict Avoidance

Most leaders are not prepared to have this level of conversation. Rarely are these soft people skills taught in management training. Hard skills, such as operations, project planning, and finance are much easier to teach. Business schools hope that these soft skills are absorbed during a career.

But most leaders lack the skill and emotional intelligence to have productive conversations about tough topics. Transparency makes most people uncomfortable. When you are placed in a leadership position, displaying transparency feels like a threat to competency.

Many leaders will develop a victim mindset themselves versus an accountable one. A victim mindset often leads to conflict avoidance because of fears of inadequacy. They hope that needed change and the potential conflict it can bring will magically disappear. Unfortunately, this avoidance of problems causes toxicity in an organization to fester. Good employees sense the negative environment and leave, creating a deeper negative environment.

Misplaced Solutions

Organizations recognize this problem of change management and will invest in costly change management frameworks and communications strategies. Yet, these are often band-aid solutions, because they don’t address the critical skill of leaders working on a 1:1 or team interpersonal level.

A report written by Scott Keller and Carolyn Aiken at McKinsey & Company suggests that 80 percent of what leaders care about when trying to enlist support for change does not matter to 80 percent of the workforce.

The top-down approach to organizational change frustrates employees leading to a simmering state of disconnect. Without instilling these interpersonal skills and learning to listen to the ideas of their teams, employees begin to view leadership as distant and out of touch. They aren’t addressing the right conversations that are taking place among teams and individual contributors.

One only needs to listen in on conversations among employees after large meetings where leadership speaks to see this play out. A quiet grumble emerges in side conversations among participants demonstrating that leadership didn’t address real concerns about needed change.

If companies do not build skills among leadership to lead difficult conversations during change the impact can be detrimental to the future of their organizations. Productivity and engagement decline. Stress and anxiety build resulting in toxic cultures. Toxic cultures ultimately produce poor business outcomes with a loss of revenue and profits.

The picture doesn’t have to continue to be bleak. There are several steps an organization can take to positively handle confrontation and change management.

Tips for Positive Confrontation

1. Identify Toughest ChallengesLeadership often has insight into the metrics that create the biggest challenges to a business. However, they might not understand all the internal root causes or know the perspectives of contributors that might lead to the solution.

Open conversations about the challenges and opportunities an organization faces are necessary to reveal where the biggest pain points are located. Only when issues are named and agreed upon can true change begin to take place.

2. Tackle the Issue Through ConversationOnce an issue has been named, you can move forward through conversation with your teams. This process may be painful because honesty and openness require vulnerability. It’s at this step many leaders will back away. They don’t have the tools to have difficult conversations. One key to successful conversations when dealing with challenges is to remember you aren’t confronting people but issues. Reframing the problem as something objective lowers the emotion in conversations and allows for innovation and true solutions to emerge.

3. Increase Transparency and Reduce ToxicityThe reason transparency is so important is that it goes hand in hand with trust. You can’t have one without the other. And without them, your workplace culture and relationships will suffer. Lies and secrets break trust, while honesty and transparency build trust. And when trust is created, it leads to a heightened sense of security and better employee performance.

When someone is honest with us and willing to overcome the discomfort of confronting the issue, we learn to trust that they’ll tell us the truth. When leaders and employees know how to confront skillfully, it influences not only the one-on-one relationship but the health of the company culture as well. Keep each other’s best interest at heart while also addressing and resolving the issue at hand.

Case Study in Confrontation

Christus Health came to Fierce because they were feeling the stress of rapid change and needed the skills to transform while maintaining a positive culture.

Like many organizations, Christus defined itself as having a Culture of Nice. Unfortunately, this tends to be passive and surface-level behavior while discontent lies beneath. There were no real open conversations taking place leading to a lack of engagement and frustrated manager effectiveness.

Lisa Reynolds, VP of Talent Management said, “We needed Fierce in our organization because we needed to be better at all types of conversations, especially those awkward conversations that were important, yet they were about difficult issues.”

After understanding the challenges Christus faced, the Fierce team designed a program using our Coaching, Team, Delegation, and Confrontation conversations trainings.

Through the ongoing training, Christus instilled tools in their leadership to have difficult conversations about the challenges they were facing while also giving constructive feedback leading to greater productivity.

What were the results?

Christus saw a 36% promotion rate among employees and 81% retention rate in an industry that is continually facing staffing challenges. 

Previously, direct reports made requests to management to be coached by someone other than their direct manager. This was an indication that communication with teams was not ideal. After the training, these requests were reduced by 80%. Engagement among employees also increased from the third quartile to the top quartile.

Today, over 1500 associates at Christus have completed Fierce training. They were also awarded the North Texas Prism Award for internal training and leadership programming. 

Beyond workplace improvements, participants saw the training impact life beyond work. One participant commented: “This transformed my life, not just at work but at home.”

Handling the tough challenges in today’s work climate can be overcome by learning to be transparent with teams and addressing hard issues without fear.

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