Initiating Confrontation is Good Leadership

A good manager learns how to manage conflict when it arises, as it invariably does in any organisation. A good leader learns how to initiate confrontation. This seems counter-intuitive to many people but that is because there is an incorrect presumption that confrontation is bad. I blame tree-hugging hippies for falsely promising a corporate utopia free from confrontation. I am not saying that confrontation is good, it simply is human nature. If companies deny human nature and create a culture that seeks to avoid confrontation the result isn’t happy employees but a sterile environment filled with resentment but unable to express their frustration for fear of the discussion leading to confrontation. A good leader recognises the nature of confrontation and its role in maintaining a healthy corporate culture. A great leader understands that initiating confrontation upwards and sideways to peers is of far greater value than initiating downwards.

When considering confronting employees reporting to you, it is best to set the stage so that the employees feel safe to have the confrontation and then to trigger it and guide it along a positive path. So what is confrontation? It is forcing one or more parties to face and discuss an issue that they do not want to. Contrast this to the definition of conflict which concerns a fight in which all parties are participants. A confrontation need not lead to conflict but it often does.

In the GCC the primary need for initiating confrontation is inappropriate deference in the board room and in management meetings. In the board room there is no hierarchy, all directors are equal including the chairman who is considered “first amongst equals.” Classifications of director levels based on shareholder relationships, age, or time served on the board are false. In management there is a formal hierarchy but this does not take away from each executive’s responsibility to speak up if they have something to say.

Initiating confrontation should take a ramped approach starting with private one on one conversation and leading gradually up to full discussion by all stakeholders in a formal meeting. As I have already stated this does not have to lead to conflict. I have seen many a board meeting where an older chairman welcomed the participation of younger members who might have a different but still valuable perspective. In nearly every such case that I know of the younger member took months if not years to speak up, robbing the board of the benefit of his insight.

If the confrontation faces resistance that turns into conflict you need to think carefully about your goals. The main ways to manage conflict are: avoid, accommodate, collaborate, compromise and dictate. There is nothing wrong with avoidance but if it is done to avoid personal reprisals at the expense of the good of the company it is a short term solution only and will backfire in the end. Dictating terms is the opposite end of the spectrum and worse than useless as conflict management strategy. The three middle strategies strike the right balance. The bottom line is that if you want to be a great leader you need to get out of your comfort zone and confront the strategic issues that the company faces. We need to build a business culture where it is understood that critical inquiry is not only acceptable it is beneficial and in no way offensive.

The message to all the chairmen and CEO’s in the region: If your directors and executives are not questioning you and pushing back then you have a culture of fear that is destroying corporate value.