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New Career Skill: Effective Confrontations

guys-fightYears ago I was promoted above my supervisor, who deeply resented the fact that I leapfrogged her on the chain of command.

The unusual promotion was both unexpected and an answer to prayer. My first reaction was to lock myself in the bathroom and jump up and down for a few minutes, silently mouthing, “Thank you, Jesus.” My second reaction was to sit in the bathroom stall with my head between my knees, silently mouthing, “Help me, Jesus.”

Following the good news, the company bigwig had just given me my first assignment: to discipline my fuming boss-turned-subordinate. The day before, she was the boss of me. Now I was expected to reprimand her for poor performance.

Up to that point, I had been a people pleaser — the thought of offending someone terrified me beyond reason. But I knew if I were to succeed in my new role, I had to develop a bold tongue and confrontation skills in a hurry.

Finding the right balance was a struggle. I had watched “no-nonsense” managers tear their subordinates apart by taking the “brutal honesty” approach. I’d also watched entire departments suffer when the boss was too light on boundaries. I knew either of those scenarios would amount to failure.

I found refuge (and some really kick-butt strategies) in what I considered the top authorities in effective confrontations:

  1. The Bible
  2. Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, clinical psychologists and authors of Boundaries Face to Face: How to Have That Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding (who, incidentally, base their advice on Scriptures)

“As a consultant,” says Cloud, “I find that the best performers, the best teams and the best work cultures are those that confront well.”

Mirroring the two scenarios I described earlier, Cloud and Townsend state that many of us live in two worlds when it comes to relationships. In one world, we have friendly conversations in which we avoid all disagreements (which was my case). In the other, we have major conflict-type conversations that tear everybody up. “In the first world we have connection without truth, and in the second we have truth without connection,” the authors write. The Bible calls this marriage of truth and connection “truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

Think about a time when someone told you the truth without love. “You always mess this up,” or, as one of my former co-workers was told, “You’re too immature for a management position.” You probably felt attacked and, no matter how accurate the statement, it hardly mattered, because the hurt eclipsed everything else. In godly confrontations, truth needs to be coupled with grace for the other person to safely receive and digest the feedback.

Now think about a time when you received grace without truth. Like the time someone shared a terrible idea with me, which I knew would be a disaster, and I just smiled and said, “That’s interesting; maybe you could make that work.” It probably made the person feel comforted, but provided no direction, correction or insight into what she should do next. “When you are confronting,” Cloud and Townsend write, “sprinkle in your care. When you are caring, sprinkle in the truth.” And when in doubt, they advise we go for grace: “The damage done by a lack of grace is more severe than the opposite.”

Applying that advice, I summoned my new nemesis to sit down for a talk (which was progress already, considering she wasn’t speaking to me). I poured my heart out and told her how freakin’ scared I was, and how much I wanted us to succeed together. (I think she had built up this scenario in her head that I was out to “get” her and my admission of weakness caught her off guard.)

As we talked, I could see the wheels turning in her head and the muscles on her face relaxing. An hour later – I’m not making this up – she gave me a hug and said, “I love you.”

We eventually parted ways, but enjoyed a good working relationship until she left the company a few months later.

I love how biblical truth is still applicable – cutting edge, even – today.

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If you need help tackling a difficult confrontation, below are some useful resources:

Boundaries books series:

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6 Responses

  1. Boundaries is an excellent resource, thanks for sharing this story.

  2. Andrea – What a great story! And a great learning experience for you, too. (And extremely well written, to boot!)

    Our management team is currently having extensive discussions about this idea of positive confrontation (or the biblical version would be “speaking the truth in love”) related to Talent Management and performance reviews. We are upping the ante and want to help people really understand where they stand in the organization. It’s never easy, but we had that exact conversation about balancing the harsh truth with looking out for the person’s best interest – in love. The best manager is one who truly cares about the soul and spirit of the employee.

  3. @shrinkingthecamel – Geez, thanks, you’re making me blush 🙂

    I’m impressed your organization is tackling the issue of healthy confrontations … It’s a very neglected (but desperately needed) skill in the marketplace. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Wow, that would be such an akward career move; one that I would but wouldn’t want to take, ya know? How hard would that be to reprimand your once boss???

    I know I couldn’t do it but you seemed to have handled it well, even quietly wanted to jump up in down

    ~Sarah

  5. Hey! Where did the rest of my reply go?????

    I also wrote more than just that….what happened???

  6. Hi, Sarah, thanks for stopping by! Your comment seems complete to me… sorry if WordPress ate part of it!

    Yes, there was a very awkward side to that promotion, but I knew drastic changes were needed to “save” our department, so at that point I was game for a bold new move — even if it meant stepping on someone’s toes and being a little uncomfortable for a while.

    What’s most intriguing is that a couple of weeks earlier I was praying as I was driving to work and I told God, “Lord, I would love a promotion or a raise right now — I’m really discouraged and uninspired with what I’m doing. But I know there’s no money in the company for raises right now and no new positions in sight — basically no room for a career move up the ladder. But I’m just going to leave that in your hands, let you work that out and I’m not going to worry about it. Thanks for whatever you’re going to do.” After that I sensed that He wanted me to work as an act of worship unto him and let him handle any issues of office politics or recognition on my behalf. Then this crazy promotion comes my way. My friends get tired of me saying this, but when you put God first, He shows up and shows off.

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