A Secret No One Tells New Managers

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The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists two meanings for “confrontation.” There are “a face-to-face meeting” and “the clashing of forces or ideas.” Both are part of being a boss, but hardly anyone tells that to a new manager in advance.

You could say that managing others is the art of “controlled confrontation.” If you want to succeed as a boss, you must learn to do it well.

Part of your job is accomplishing the mission through your team. Sometimes that means asking your people to do things they’d rather not do. Sometimes it means getting them to stop doing things that affect team performance.

You do most of that face-to-face. You need to communicate how things should be done and why it matters. Your team members may have different ideas. That’s where confrontation happens.

Part of your job is to care for your people. That means helping them succeed which often involves getting them to do things differently. Confrontation can happen there as well, even if you’re trying to help.

The bottom line is that being a boss requires you to get people to change their behavior or improve their performance. Since nobody likes to be told that what they’re doing is wrong, confrontation will be an inevitable part of your job.

No one I know relishes confrontation. For more than three decades, I’ve asked participants in my classes what part of the job they hate most. “Talking to team members about poor performance” is always at the top of the list.

It’s necessary, though. Confrontation is often where growth and change begin.

Not just any confrontation will do. Controlled confrontation is what you’re after. Here’s how to handle confrontation effectively.

Lots of small corrections make confrontation easier. Don’t ask your people to make huge changes. Don’t surprise them by telling them that what they’ve been doing for weeks or months is wrong.

Small course corrections increase your odds of success. The easier you make it for your team members to do what you want, the more likely they are to do it.

Limit your confrontations to a single issue. That helps you and your team member focus.

Do it privately. No one likes to be embarrassed by being corrected in front of their co-workers.

Adapt your behavior to your team member. You can set some people at ease with small-talk. But that makes others nervous and uncomfortable. They want you to get right to the reason you’re having a chat.

Start with the facts. Just the facts. Drain away the adjectives and describe the behavior or performance in neutral language. This should only take a few seconds.

Move right on to describing the impact of the performance or behavior that you want to change. Describe the impact in logical and emotional terms.

Logical is something like: “When you come in late, we have to have someone else cover the phones. That’s means their work isn’t getting done.”

Emotional is different. It’s how you or someone else feels about the behavior or performance. Example: “When I have to re-arrange assignments at the last minute, I get angry.”

Once you’re done with the facts and the impact, stop. Be quiet. Don’t say anything more. Shut up. It’s your subordinate’s turn to talk.

Wait for him or her to respond. Wait for as long as it takes. Wait and wait and wait, no matter how uncomfortable you get.

When you do that, what will most often happen next is that you’ll be discussing issues with your team member. You may find out that you have the facts wrong. You may discover circumstances you weren’t aware of. You may be able to move on to how things will be different.

Be sure to agree on what will change and when. Be clear about how it will be measured.

Boss’s Bottom Line

Controlled confrontation is a key part of being a boss. Following the advice outlined here will improve your odds of successful controlled confrontation. Your objective is for your team member to leave your meeting thinking about what will change and not how you treated them.

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