Nonprofit prophet

To confront or not to confront. That is the question.

In Short

Accountability is critical to the success of any organization, particularly the key role your leaders need to play by holding themselves and others accountable

I usually write my pieces only with my consultant hat on, but this time I’m going to add my unique cultural perspective as someone who grew up in Eastern Europe and didn’t come to America until I was 25 years old.

Accountability is critical to the success of any organization, particularly the key role your leaders need to play by holding themselves and others accountable. But it’s not so easy to do in part, I think, because of the fear of confrontation that is part of American culture. 

Just walk away! Don’t engage! Don’t rock the boat! Be nice!

There is nothing wrong with these responses, except that they teach us to fear and avoid confrontation instead of teaching us when and how to engage in it in a productive way. Avoiding confrontation out of fear shouldn’t be our default reaction or solution.

Think of confrontation as a tool or method of having a difficult, but important conversation. Think of it as a way to stand up for yourself and those who can’t stand up for themselves. Confronting another person isn’t synonymous with being aggressive, belligerent or any other negative words you associate with confrontation. Just like with many other things, it’s not so much what you do, but how you do it.    

When you’re a toddler avoiding confrontation by walking away from another toddler, who just stole your toy on the playground, that might be an appropriate response. But when you’re a grown-up walking away from a co-worker, who just hijacked the meeting you were carefully preparing for the last two weeks, that’s not OK. 

If you don’t hold that co-worker accountable for their actions and behaviors at that meeting, not only is it guaranteed to happen again, but it will also set a precedent for others to do the same.  By “walking away” you give unspoken approval of their actions and permission to do it again. 

What about a board chair, who prefers not to rock the boat, and ends up setting bad precedents and rewarding bad behaviors? For example, not holding board members accountable when they don’t show up to board meetings, show up late or leave early; come to a meeting unprepared; micromanage the CEO; dominate a conversation; share confidential information; etc.  

What about a CEO, who just wants to be nice, and ends up not providing their staff with substantive feedback (formal and informal) and not firing that employee whose work is being done by everyone else on the team? 

What about anyone else within your organization, who isn’t in an obvious position of authority? Don’t they have a role to play by speaking up when they’re not being helped or consulted by a coworker on a project they are jointly responsible for; when their supervisor isn’t giving them enough time to accomplish a task, or isn’t being clear about the final product?

In every example, a lack of willingness to confront an individual causes a lack of accountability within the organization. And how about holding themselves accountable as a board chair, CEO, board member or employee?  Each time they walk away, they set precedents for continuing bad behaviors, and create or further promote a culture that isn’t open to feedback or to having difficult conversations. Think of the cost of their choices to your organization – whether in resources (human and monetary), productivity, impact or, frankly, all of the above and more. 

The culture I was raised in is almost the opposite of the American one (to a fault) – it was a culture of seeking confrontation. But, after nearly a quarter century in America, I have found what I think is the right balance, and I’d like to share a few suggestions for when and how to confront others productively:

  1. “To confront or not confront?” truly is the very first question you should be asking. Not everything can or should be solved through this tool. And there are, of course, times when it’s best to simply walk away or not engage.  Generally, when it’s not an important or consequential issue and/or you are not willing to invest in the other person and/or won’t be interacting with again, it’s probably not worth confronting them. 
  2. If to confront is the answer, ask yourself if you feel ready to approach them in a way they’ll be able to hear. Are you ready to listen?  What do you need to take responsibility for?
  3. When is the best time to do it? Not right away, when the emotions are high, but soon after. Give it a day or two to get your head in the right space.
  4. Use the in-between-time to reach out to schedule a time to talk and tell them, in a general way, what it’s about. You don’t want them not knowing what they’re walking into. 
  5. In the meeting, be brief and specific and take responsibility for your part. Don’t dance around the issue and, if there is more than one, pick the central one and focus on it. Present your view of the situation and what impact it had.  Ask for confirmation and listen. Look for a resolution you can agree on going forward. Thank the person for their time. 
  6. Close the loop publicly in a tasteful way, only including those who witnessed the issue. Communicate that it’s been resolved successfully and thank the person for their cooperation.    

And if the person you need to confront is you, which often is the hardest since you need to stand up for yourself to yourself, most of the tips above are still just as applicable. 

Any true leader knows that before they hold others accountable, they must hold themselves accountable first. So, be brave and start there. 

Natasha Dresner is an organizational development consultant and mentor with JCamp 180, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Agawam. She can be reached at Natasha@hgf.org 

Originally published in The Berkshire Eagle.