The Confrontation Obligation -or- Yes, you really do need to say it.

I can’t remember what it was exactly. Some perceived conflict between the other therapist and I. For story-telling purposes we’ll call her J-Diddy. There were only two then. I’m sure I was certain I was right. I’m sure I was certain J-Diddy was wrong. There was likely an ethical imperative to the situation (You know, I’ve met me and I’m pretty darn good at ethical arguments). There was a lot of ethical gray area at that particular time.

I sat down with the boss.

The big boss. The big boss who had an open door policy. Small non-profits can be like that.

I’m sure I was upset. That was my M.O. when feeling righteous and certain my team member was wrong.

Kris, the big boss at the time, was empathetic. She heard me out. She made me feel supported.

Then she did something I didn’t like at all.

She told me that if it mattered as much as I said it did, I needed to go to my colleague. She would not say to my colleague that she had heard from part of the team, because that would cause J-Diddy to feel unsupported and add fuel to workplace politics. She could either allow me to address it, with my commitment to do so, or she could be present while I did so, but it was my responsibility. If I chose to address the issue on my own, she was willing to coach me on how to handle myself: how to do healthy conflict.

In the moment I didn’t like it at all. I wanted her to take the burden of my discomfort from me. I wanted her to own it and for me to be free of it.

She told me, which is nearly always accurate, that in any story there are multiple perspectives. There would be my truth and J’s truth and the truth was probably somewhere in the middle. She could not take ownership of my truth for me.

I didn’t like that at all.

I didn’t like it at all, but I learned from it.

I am forever grateful that working with Kris as boss was my first employment experience in my career in social work. She eventually promoted me to lead a slightly larger therapy team, likely because I was willing to learn through a lot of tough feedback, but she never allowed me not to own my own stuff. She held me accountable and expected the same of the team.

Years have passed since then and I’ve found myself wondering if her approach was an anomaly.

Since leaving that little non-profit I’ve had more than one, or two, or five experiences of colleagues feeling that a colleague was in the wrong and “going to their supervisor.” I know this because they tell me and I encourage them to talk to our teammate, but usually people don’t. People generally don’t like conflict. People especially don’t like the face of conflict that looks like confrontation.

As I’m reading Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business, I happened upon a paragraph that reminded me of Kris and J-Diddy and how much I learned from both of them during the 5 years we worked together.

Most people assume that the leader of an executive team should be the primary source of accountability–and that’s the norm in most unhealthy organizations–but it isn’t efficient or practical, and it makes little sense. 

When members of a team go to their leader whenever they see a peer deviate from a commitment that was made, they create a perfect environment for distraction and politics. Colleagues start to wonder who ratted them out, they get resentful of one another, and the team leader finds herself being constantly pulled into situations that could be more quickly and productively solved without her. 

When team members know that their colleagues are truly committed to something, they can confront one another about issues without fearing defensiveness or backlash. Afterall, they’re merely helping someone get back on track or seeking clarity about something that doesn’t seem right…

I realize of course that Lencioni is writing for executives, or agency leaders. I would contest that leadership, or ownership of the organization’s success, is every staff member’s responsibility. This also calls to mind something that therapists, counselors, psychologists and social workers (like yours truly) call “parallel process.”

The concept of parallel process asserts that there is a phenomenon that occurs between therapist and supervisor in which the clinical supervision mirrors the interaction between therapist and client. I’d propose that this is not limited to the therapy profession, but is simply an element of how human interactions work. With that in mind it follows that under the guidance of an organization’s leader, the interactions of the executives with their teams will mirror those of the leader with the executives and the interactions within those teams will mirror those among the executives.

Another thought on confrontation is that it is the best course for mandated reporters. I can tell you that as a social worker, previously working in a whiz-fast Emergency Department, I have made countless mandated reports. There are times when clinical judgement has guided me to report without disclosing to the family that I am doing so, usually due to safety concerns. However, it is nearly always better for the organization’s relationship with the family for the social worker to tell them of the concern and mandated reporting requirement. This is a confrontation. It’s not a character judgement. It’s not done out of spite. I’ve made mandated reports regarding families that I genuinely liked. The confrontation is helpful to the relationship because it is much better for the family to hear the concern and know that a report is being made than to be surprised later and (similarly to the problem of colleagues who “go to the supervisor”) wonder who ratted. Feeling that someone ratted breaks down trust. The open communication fosters trust, is usually appreciated and, even when it is the catalyst for anxiety, respected.

It is essential to the health of an organization that colleagues respect each other.

So, yes. It is the leader’s responsibility to manage confrontation, but not in the way you might expect. Or like. I didn’t like it at all.

It is the leader’s responsibility to expect you to do it.

Thanks, Kris.



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