There are few words that have a worse connotation in the workplace than ‘confrontation.’ For most, it conjures up a negative image, often of a one-sided discussion that results in a punishment, possibly a termination.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, these “tough conversations” are healthy and important, according to Tressa Springmann, CIO at LifeBridge Health.
Springmann was one of three panelists who discussed this issue during a recent webinar, during which they shared stories from their past and present to illustrate the best – and worst – ways to approach critical career discussions.
According to Chuck Christian, VP of Technology at Franciscan Health, it starts with throwing out the traditional, rather “stale” model of confrontation and viewing it from a different lens. “There are ways of addressing and delivering unpleasant news that, if done right, can be more like coaching or mentoring,” he said. “You’re providing information that can assist them in their current job – or the next job.”
The challenge, of course, comes in figuring out precisely how to do that; how to convey the right message in the most appropriate way, in order to achieve the desired outcome. It’s not easy; in fact, for most leaders, these conversations can be extremely stressful, noted Craig Richardville, CIO at SCL Health. “Leaders are people. We have big hearts. We have care and compassion.”
And that makes it all the more critical to know how to navigate confrontations, which often revolve around “a broken trust, a perceived lack of accountability, or something that just didn’t go the way it should have,” noted Springmann. Due to the nature of these conversations, and the emotions involved, it can be easy for things to “go south,” she noted.
To that end, the three speakers — who have racked up decades of leadership experience and are among the most respect in the industry — shared the following pieces of advice.
- Do your homework. “If you want to get the appropriate outcome without degrading the relationship, you can’t be cavalier about it,” said Springmann. “I spend a lot of time preparing for these conversations and challenging myself on what I want the outcome to be.”
- Stay focused. The key, Christian believes, is to deal with the behavior without attacking the person. “It’s not okay to say, ‘what were you thinking?’ You need to be succinct about the message you want to deliver.”
- Check your emotions. It’s not uncommon for the person being addressed to become defensive; the onus is on leaders to remain calm. “If you’re angry, take a beat,” said Christian. “Don’t engage, because if you do, you’re not going to achieve the outcome you wanted, and you won’t come across the leader you need to be.” Springmann agreed, adding that CIOs need to remember it’s not about proving a point; “it’s about creating a safe space to understand how and why things went off the rails.”
- Don’t make it the last resort. Ideally, these conversations should provide individuals with the ability to change, learn, and improve their performance, said Christian. “It should be about growth and development.”
- Know when to involve others. This can get tricky, as it depends not just on what happened, but whether there is documentation or accounts from firsthand witnesses. Every organization is different, so it’s important to set expectations early on (in terms of what actions warrant a performance improvement discussion), and establish a trusting relationship with the HR department, noted Richardville. The general rule, according to Christian, is to “praise in public and coach in private,” but there’s no “perfect formula” when it comes to these discussions.
- Look within. It should never be a one-sided discussion, Springmann emphasized. And that means starting with yourself and asking, “Did I contribute to the problem? Was I not clear in setting expectations? Did I send mixed messages?”
- Be clear. Although it’s advisable to start the conversation with a positive comment, leaders need to “be very clear about the performance or behavior that’s not acceptable,” and be clear on what the outcome needs to be,” said Richardville. “It’s not a discussion or negotiation.” He also recommends keeping the meeting short—under five minutes if possible, and giving the individual time to reflect.
Finally, remember that confrontations offer a unique opportunity for learning and growth. “That’s the essence of these conversations,” said Springmann. “It’s creating an environment where you’re giving that individual enough clarity that you’re able to put the choice in their hands.”
To view the archive of this webinar, please click here.