Confrontation at Work

I am responding to a recent tweet by Tobias Mayer and the ensuing twitter conversations about the usefulness of ‘confrontation’ in the workplace. Some people responded that confrontation is bad, others said no, it is great. Each has a different mental model of what confrontation is. I will address that in this post. Tobias said:

I’m beginning to think that confrontation is the most important behavior to cultivate in today’s IT organization. – @tobiasmayer

I admit, I was multi-tasking when I read this tweet. I was listening to the congressional inquiry into the failed launch of the Affordable Health Care Act’s (ACA) healthcare.gov system on October 1st. I was lamenting, also via a few tweets of my own, how aggressive the grilling of the contractors was. I was feeling sad that there could not be more ‘open’ inquiry and dialogue rather than this form of confrontation: ‘Did you know…?’ Did you tell anyone..? Is that enough time..? Why didn’t you..? You had to hear the tone of voice to know that this wasn’t inquiry; this was a grilling, a confrontation. The answers came back in the form of justification and blame: ‘That’s not our part of the system’ and ‘We were told to change the system only 2 weeks before the delivery date’.

In the way that most people traditionally understand confrontation, it is more like a collision than a collaboration.

Traditional confrontation (collision): I ask a team member to meet with me; I tell him his work is unsatisfactory and why. then I tell him to go back and do it over; I may ask why, but I don’t listen. I don’t explore. I don’t ask for context. I control. I demand. I assume wrongness and I don’t allow any other explanation other than the one in my head as a possible reason. In that way, I have separated myself from this person. I exert my control. In fact, I instill fear. He/she walks away, unable to speak.

Here is a more subtle scenario: I roll my eyes at your solution during a meeting while you are looking at me.

In a collaborative environment or team, people are honest and open, and don’t take offense at each other’s comments or feedback, solutions, and suggestions – even when there are divergent views and even disagreement. People know each other well and there is humor and a willingness to learn from each other. There are some companies that actively seek to foster this type of employee engagement, and there are teams that strive to create supportive learning environments. However, the ‘collision’ type of culture is more prevalent than the ‘collaboration’ type of culture.

In the collaborative, learning environment: people know when and how to speak up. They do this when their inner voice that tells them ‘something smells fishy’, ‘something bothers me about this solution,’ or ‘I am saying I support this endeavor when I don’t understand its purpose whatsoever’. In the proper collaborative environment, or with training in how to do this type of ‘confrontation’ well, people can and will speak up. They feel and observe what is not right and don’t let it fester. When they bring their observations to the team or to management, they are heard and a discussion or dialogue ensues. This is the good type of confrontation.

I recently found a great series of videos created by BayNVC. In these videos, you watch the conflict coach, Miki Kashtan, as she coaches two role players during a traditional confrontation between two people in the workplace. She coaches them to have a more collaborative, inquiry based type of problem solving approach to the issues at hand. These are role-plays of some very typical workplace issues. The first one in the series is You are not a team player. [This is an excellent series of videos on workplace conflict modeled using techniques of Non-Violent Communication. To find the rest of the series, type BayNVC workplace into the Youtube search criteria – they are numbered in the order you should watch them.]

Tobias’ aspiration to make confrontation the next most needed skill in the IT workplace makes perfect sense to me when viewed in the light of confrontation with collaborative intent. One’s inner voice is not left to fester; judgments that ring in one’s head are shared and discussed.

I wonder how many people involved in the rollout of the healthcare.gov site can think back to moments in which they had ‘issues’ with the way things were going and did nothing about it.

In my next post, I will talk about the ‘Enemy Image’ which is a useful way to begin to break down what separates people from giving and receiving empathy during moments of impending confrontation; thereby allowing them to get closer to needs and requests that might allow for better mutual learning and solutions.

Explore posts in the same categories: Courage, Dialogue, Organizational Change, Personal Growth, Teams

4 Comments on “Confrontation at Work”


  1. Andrea, thanks for this post. Some terms like “confrontation” are heavily loaded, and it can be difficult to think about them. A really great thing about what you have to say here is that you show that different frames around these terms have a big influence on how we understand them. Agilists know that effective conflict engagement is key to velocity and building strong teams. This is tough work, but the amazing thing is that it can really help build relationships.

    Thanks again for stepping up to this topic in your blog!

    — Jean


  2. No “share this” button? 😦


  3. Great post, Andrea. I like how you contrast collaborative confrontation with collision confrontation. It was the former I had in mind when I wrote the tweet 🙂 Like failure, confrontation is best handled early and often. Just as we don’t want colossal failure we don’t want colossal confrontation—that’s when it hurts, and inevitably results in denial, excuses and justification.


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