To Confront or Not to Confront? Speak Truth to Power

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Did you see the video of teacher Kristen Mink that went viral? She confronted EPA Director Scott Pruitt in a café, telling him the reasons why she thought he should resign. Two days later, he did. But did she go too far?

If you saw the recording of her reading her prepared notes, you likely lost your breath watching this encounter. Mink spoke with passionate conviction; she was well prepared and cool in her delivery. Most moms don’t vent publicly at politicians and seeing her balance her two-year-old on her hip was a brilliant optic. The image gave her credibility as she spoke about the future environment she wants her son to inherit.  It was a powerful encounter and as a result, Mink had her fifteen minutes of fame. She quickly appeared on many cable news outlets expressing her frustration with Pruitt’s lack of integrity. Haven’t we all had moments when we’ve wanted to speak truth to power?

Typically, we hold back because we think confrontations are a bad thing and we are conflict averse. A confrontation is when you “face a situation that makes you uncomfortable or say something to someone about something they’ve done that bothers you.” In the book Crucial Confrontations, we learn that confrontations are sparked by broken promises, violated expectations, or bad behavior that includes someone being irresponsible and causing threats to others. We’d rather tiptoe around a bad situation or avoid something that no longer works until it affects us personally. We assume that giving someone critical feedback won’t have a good outcome and will lead to a hostile argument. And we worry: Someone will get hurt. Bad feelings can rupture friendships or colleague relationships. Some of the fallout could be irreparable and I could lose my job. But, if done well and with the right intentions, confrontation is really an act of respect.

When people are frustrated with poor leadership, they tend to take the low road and waste time gossiping about why the person in charge should know better. Typically, people become frustrated when a leader isn’t doing his or her job. When leadership ignores major problems or behaves with utter disregard toward a government regulation or HR policy, morale and productivity suffer.

A better approach is to take the high road and clear the air by expressing your concerns directly to the person in charge. If you find yourself getting frustrated about a situation, it’s important that you take action. After all, if you don’t speak up when you know the scale and the consequences of doing nothing about a problem, your reputation can be tarnished. Your colleagues may consider you as enabling. Remember that your experience and knowledge have value in a given situation. Don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder; things may continue to fall apart if you do. There is rarely a perfect time to speak up.

In the case of Kristen Mink, she asked a political appointee to resign. She said her piece and it wasn’t negotiable. She had nothing to lose except the judgments of others who might think her rude. Things are different in the workplace where people have assigned levels of power and authority. When considering confronting someone in a leadership position, I advise you to evaluate the risks:

  • Read the temperature of the culture. Are you the only one who is bothered by something that is clearly going to be damaging? Is there someone in the organization or in a parallel professional role (e.g., Marketing Director or President of your Professional Association), who will watch your back and protect you if you speak up? If not, there might be repercussions that will hurt only you.
  • Is this merely a personality clash? Be honest. Are you being unduly critical? Is it about a poor communication style or the need for a power play for its own sake?
  • Do you know what you’re talking about? Do you have all the pertinent facts? Are you sure that you really do have a better idea for how to run the project or organization and that people will back you up?
  • Have you considered what might happen if the situation doesn’t improve after a confrontation? What’s at stake and how will you or your group move forward (division, department, team or the organization) if nothing changes?
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After you’ve done your risk-analysis, you may decide that it’s worth it to speak truth to power. Organize your key message points carefully in advance and keep your expectations realistic. To keep your cool, I recommend using this checklist:

  • Select a time and a place that is private. There’s no need to have anyone else involved or witnessing your confrontation and, certainly, nobody should be recording it.
  • Clarify that this isn’t personal or merely a personality clash. Indicate that your role or experience puts you in a strong position to understand the problem or issue.
  • Describe the situation in very specific way. When did the problem start? Quantify the consequences of doing nothing in terms of “customer” or staff dissatisfaction, profitability, missing regulatory deadlines, or inadequate quality control mechanisms.
  • Show respect for the person’s prior successes to soften the singular harshness the person may experience. Acknowledge when things were going well and when he or she has shown positive leadership for a prior turnaround.
  • Emphasize that you don’t seek personal gain. Your goal is to see a good outcome with the widest degree of positive impact.
  • Propose what would work better and why. Make it clear that you’re speaking for yourself, your team or department, your neighborhood, or your profession.­­
  • Predict the consequences of indifference or inaction. Outline what will happen if nothing changes.

If you can deliver your message in a straightforward, respectful way, you’ll be most effective. Sure, you might have an awkward moment if the recipient feels criticized and becomes defensive. However, if you feel a situation is untenable, you should do the right thing. And that confrontational conversation might lead to improved quality in products and services, greater efficiencies, decreased waste, increased customer satisfaction, and greater profitability.  You may have cleared the air and forced change for the better (i.e. someone incompetent being forced to resign). And if nothing changes, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that you did the right thing. From there, you can choose what actions to take next, even if that means you have to leave your job or position because the problem isn’t going to be addressed.

You may not appear on a major cable news channel and receive the brief celebrity status that Kristin Mink did because yours will likely be a private confrontation. The best-case scenario is that the problem is solved, positive changes occur, or you feel personal satisfaction. Perhaps you will be  hailed as an emerging and powerful leader by friends or colleagues. As Albert Einstein wrote, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

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