Analyze This

The Art of Confrontation

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week
So much is written these days about teamwork and collaboration. But what about when you have to stand out by taking a stand? Some situations call for confrontation.
The best CEOs I work with know how to exert pressure, say no, and start and win a fight when necessary. So much for teamwork? Actually, collaboration and confrontation aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s aggression&151la basic survival mechanism&151land then there’s its tamer, more socially adaptive cousin, assertiveness, which can be deployed usefully, including with people working on the “same side.”

The need to be assertive comes up all the time. It’s essential in negotiating contracts, rejecting bad work, criticizing a strategy, or firing (or defending) an employee. Yet some people will do almost anything to avoid confrontation. Why? They may fear that expressing any displeasure will open the floodgates of their own anger. Or they may have been raised to regard aggression as dangerous or shameful, and to see criticism as hurtful. Confidence and character play a role, too. After all, you’re likely to be held accountable if you take a strong position and win.

There are prices to be paid for fleeing the good fight: everything from hours of correcting underlings’ work (rather than sending it back) to being perceived as a weak leader who tolerates mediocrity. Of course, too much confrontation&151lor yelling just to vent frustration&151lwon’t work, either. If that’s your habitual response, you’ll be seen simply as disagreeable. (Overly aggressive people use confrontation as a form of armor.)

The key, oddly enough, is to empathize with the person you’re confronting. To that end, marshal useful facts rather than impressions, offer alternatives along with your objections, and limit comments to the deed, not the doer. Your opponent won’t hear anything you say after an attack on his or her character. And don’t be self-righteous. Or gloat if you prevail. Nobody likes a poor winner.