By Jason Ingram
If you are a business blog aficionado, then you have likely read more than one posting dealing with the concept of confrontation in the workplace. It’s a good topic; statistics on employee disengagement clearly show that many workers are only moderately engaged while on the job. Disengagement leads to dissatisfaction, which leads to the attitudes and behaviors that call for confrontation.
The problem with most blogs on confrontation in the workplace is the point in the process at which they begin. How many of you have read a posting on confrontation that begins with, “Step 1: Talk to the Employee?” That’s like beginning a discussion on defusing bombs with, “Step 1: Defuse bomb.” If I knew how to defuse the bomb, I wouldn’t need to read the blog. Simply saying, “talk to the employee” fails to address the root cause of what makes confrontation difficult in the first place: fear.
Fear exists when critical things hang in the balance. Think about your day today. Was there fear in your heart this morning as you chose what shoes to wear, or which cereal to eat? Probably not. Why? Because when you consider your day as a whole, you find that there are surprisingly few things each day important enough to invoke real fear. When you do begin to experience fear – heart racing, palms sweating, head spinning – it’s because something that is critical to you has been threatened.
This threatened thing almost always falls into one of Maslow’s five motivational needs:
- physiological (basic human needs like food, water, shelter)
- self-actualization (creative fulfillment or achieving goals)
So, what is threatened by confrontation in the workplace? What critical thing is hanging in the balance? How about self-actualization? Confronting a co-worker could anger one or both of you, leading to greater disengagement or turnover, which could in turn grind the already-slowed gears of progress to a halt and pinch your bottom line. How about acceptance? Confronting an employee – or even more risky, a superior – could have a long-term adverse effect on the working relationship. You could find yourself out of the loop in certain work-related social circles; your career could be stunted, or even ended. That’s right: confronting a superior could get you fired, which would be a direct threat to all five of Maslow’s areas of need. Heart racing yet?
Gary DeLashmutt, a minister in Columbus, Ohio, breaks fear down into three categories based on our responses to them:
- Rational or healthy fear – a logical fear of things that can cause us real harm, like fire. This is a “good” type of fear that we promote and even teach to our children. According to DeLashmutt, you should respond to these fears by listening to them, because to ignore them can lead to pain, suffering, and even death.
- Irrational or unhealthy fear – an illogical fear, sometimes stemming from an actual incident. For example, if you ignored the healthy fear of fire mentioned above and burned yourself, an irrational fear response might be to freak out any time you’re near fire, because you somehow think fire itself is “out to get you.” You should respond to these fears by not listening to them, because they represent a separation from reality.
- The third type of fear DeLashmutt describes doesn’t have an easy-to-remember name like “rational” or “irrational” fear, but in a way, it’s the synthesis of both. This third fear is best described like this: Let’s say your house is on fire, and your family is inside. The fear of fire is real, but at that moment, there is something at stake that is more important than that fear, something that you are willing to risk shame, pain, or loss to protect. You make a decision to set your crippling fear of fire aside and do what you must to save the ones you love. You should respond to these types of fears by not listening to them, because to do so means that you are sacrificing something critical.
According to DeLashmutt, the answer to confronting fear when something that is critical to you is being threatened is simple: get perspective. Make fear work for you. Find something in the equation you’re even more afraid of losing, and morph that nervous, pit-of-your-stomach adrenaline into Braveheart, “they’ll-never-take-our-freedom” adrenaline. In your business context, this calls for a few things:
- You have to know yourself. What are your rational and irrational fears? Just because you are a titan of industry doesn’t mean you are completely fearless. Sure, you’re golden in front of a room full of clients, but you shudder to sit and talk intimately – especially confrontationally – to just one person. Assessments can help you become familiar with your unspoken values and tendencies, which can help you isolate your “triggers” for fear responses. For example, if you are dramatically averse to change, then forced change will likely elicit a fear response. If you are exceedingly sociable, then the possibility of losing esteem with a fellow employee or superior through confrontation will likely scare you to death and cause you to shy away from confrontation altogether.
- You have to know your co-worker. You need this information for the same reasons listed above, especially if you are in a leadership position. No one is a natural fan of confrontation – so everyone will react to it with a certain amount of trepidation – but what exact triggers will elicit fear responses in your co-workers? You need to know this so that you can cater your conversation accordingly. It takes two to tango; even if you begin a confrontation with a well-thought out plan, something your co-worker says might set you off (or vice versa) and derail the entire conversation. But, you can defuse your own fear response by considering not only what you’ll say, but how and even when you’ll say it…and how they will (likely) respond.
- You have to consider the alternative.This is the main take away from this blog. When faced with the fear of confrontation, you need to make that fear work for you by looking down the road and counting the undesirable costs of listening to that fear.
- Suppose you give in to that pit-of-your-stomach feeling and say nothing. Neither does the co-worker with whom you have an issue. Do you think that feeling of angst just floats away? How many days in a row are you prepared to have that fear eating away at you? Isn’t one “rip-off-the-Band-Aid” moment better than a week or more of debilitating, irrational fear responses?
- Suppose you say nothing, and your co-worker does – to someone else in the office. If you are a leader, this is a situation you simply cannot afford. Your leadership has been undermined, and worse, you appear feeble to your superiors for not handling the issue confidently and in a timely manner. What’s more frightening: dealing with a sticky situation with a co-worker, or having to face the Big Boss knowing that he or she is going to bring up your recent leadership failure?
- Or, suppose the absolute worst happens: your superiors find out about the whole thing and fire you. As we stated earlier, being jobless brings a whole laundry list of Maslow’s motivational needs into play: hunger, shelter, safety, you name it. The constant pressure of having one or more of these fundamental needs go unmet isn’t nearly as bad as a few minutes of uncomfortable conversation, is it?
Confrontation is just one of a thousand every day work situations that can strike fear into your heart; often, the men and women who rise to the top in the business world seem to have a natural immunity to fear altogether. Big meetings. Big presentations. Big mergers or other big acquisitions, and they never bat an eye. Are they really all that different from the rest of us, or have they simply learned – through time, training, experience, even failure – to temper their fears and the fears of others by counting the cost and making fear work for them instead of against them?