Destructive Confrontation

A few weeks ago, a colleague sent me a well-reasoned note that pointed to what he felt were contradictions between a few of my previous blog posts. He reminded me that Self-Management derives a great deal of strength from the cross-colleague feedback that the organizational model should foster. It forms a sort of self-regulating organization that, theoretically, is far stronger than the traditional hierarchical model in that each and every colleague is charged with addressing and correcting issues they perceive within the organization.

My colleague went on to reference a subsequent post in which I ruminated on the dangers of rudeness in the workplace. In that post I referenced recent research that suggested that rudeness causes overall cooperativeness to diminish and also might actually diminish the cognitive capacity of those who are subjected to rude behavior.

These two premises, my colleague pointed out, seem contradictory. Confrontation, he says, is a vital ingredient in a Self-Managed enterprise (I would argue, actually, that confrontation is a vital ingredient in ANY healthy social organization). But every time, he goes on to say, that he’s confronted someone, the confronted colleague perceives the confrontation as rude.

And he makes a good point: often, he says, the deviant (the one who is engaging in this behavior that so desperately demands correction) has justified the behavior in his own mind and really isn’t interested in hearing what you have to say.

That’s fair and I have no doubt that it happens from time to time.

Finally, my colleague points out that he’s had his life saved by someone who started out the confrontation with something like, “Hey, you $*$#@& idiot!” Essentially, he says, sometimes “rudeness” is the only way to get someone’s attention–and I agree. Particularly when someone’s life is on the line. But most of the time, someone’s life isn’t on the line; the situation is something far more mundane. And those are the situations that I’m interested in.

So I ask you to consider a completely different social environment, one which demands that you confront another from time to time: your marriage (or relationship with significant other). I suspect that most of us (at least those with a reasonably healthy, happy relationship) have found a way to confront our significant other without being rude. In fact, courtesy seems to me to be an earmark of civilized interaction.

What’s the difference, then? Why is it that we think confrontation at work demands brusque, discourteous behavior?

That’s an honest question.

Here’s what I think: confrontation at home is given–and received–with an understanding that this confrontation is intended to better both of our lives. That doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable or even well-received, but there’s an implicit understanding that both of us are committed to this relationship, so this confrontation is simply intended to enhance that relationship.

At work, on the other hand, our relationships with our colleagues are too-often built on wary distrust. We’re generally friendly and get along OK, but we go through our careers driven by this undercurrent of fear–that someone is looking for a way to give me the boot and rob me of my livelihood.

Further, when we’re put in the position where we have to confront another, there’s this feeling of unease about the “aftermath”–that is, what’s this relationship going to be like after the dust settles?

And these two phenomena, together, manifest themselves all too often as unproductive confrontations that do more damage than good.

Does that make sense?

How can we solve it?

- Originally published by The Self-Management Institute on September 1, 2009.