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Dan's Insights and Inspirations for Empowered Leadership

Becoming A Velvet Brick: How The Best Leaders Handle Confrontation.

Confrontation is an essential quality of Authentic Leadership. When done poorly, confrontation looks pretty familiar. Yelling, tears, name calling, feet stomping, fists pounding… You've seen it before. So have I. And it's always ugly. Dysfunctional relationships produce terrible examples of confrontation. But increasingly, I've met Authentic Leaders who understand how to confront others with candor, competence, and compassion.

Take Mary for example. Years ago she was hired as a VP to lead a division of a logistics company and eventually take over for the current CEO. But after a few months, she began to understand that the CEO's abrasive leadership style was nothing she wanted to copy.

She saw the consequences of his leadership throughout the company. Turnover was at an all time high, sales were down, and things were only getting worse. Mary kept her head down for years, hoping someone else would say something… but no one did.

Finally, she realized that by staying silent, she was signaling to the rest of the company that she agreed with the CEO's leadership. There were still 3-4 long years until the CEO's retirement would pave the way for Mary to take the helm and make needed changes. Mary decided to act now. She wanted to have a candid conversation with her CEO, but she didn't want to ruin their working relationship. If you were Mary… what would you do? 

What Not To Do:

When it comes to confrontation, there are a lot of things Mary should never do. In my book, Authentic Leadership, I highlight a few common mistakes leaders make: 

Hinting & Hoping: 

If Mary Hints & Hopes, she actually wants her CEO to understand the problem. She wants him to know that she sees what happening is frustrated with the situation... without actually having a frank conversation about it. This approach is passive-aggressive, and rarely helpful. It commonly looks like this:

Giving small, subtle hints, saying things like “Maybe that’s not the best thing.”
Making a suggestion in passing and hoping they somehow "get it."
Give someone a strategically placed "look" or using a particular tone during a conversation. 

Thinking the problem will solve itself:

This is where Mary assumes the problem will get better over time. She hopes that, somehow, her CEO will learn his lesson. At some point, he’ll figure it out. Someone will call him out. Someone will tell him the effects of his behavior. Spoiler alert— the problem rarely solves itself. In fact, unaddressed, problems tend to grow. 

Talking around the CEO:

Instead of talking to the CEO who has the problem, this is where Mary talks to everyone else about the CEO. If Mary doesn't quite know how to have a frank conversation with him, she might be tempted to talk to her colleagues, her spouse, and someone on the Board… anyone but the CEO himself. Aside from eroding her character, gossiping like that will only serve to justify Mary's frustration, without actually addressing it.


This one is pretty self explanatory. After a confrontation like that, the CEO won't change and Mary can start looking for a new job.

What To Do: Become a Velvet Brick

Authentic Leaders earn influence by caring enough to hold people to a higher standard. Confrontation is tough and tender. It doesn’t need to be emotional, angry yelling to insist that others change their behavior. It can be speech that’s simple, clear, and firm. Authentic Leaders make confrontation about the specific actions, not the character of the person. 

Leaders who channel conflict to develop influence are like velvet bricks. On the outside, they appear as velvet. They’re easy to talk to. They know how to care for people, pay attention to their needs. They can empathize with others. They legitimately care about you and you feel it. 

But inside?

They’re bricks. They have clear convictions. They’ve done the hard work to figure out what they believe, the values they’re willing to fight for. They keep their word. They’re not easily swayed by popular opinions and they know how to apply consequences for inappropriate actions.

In other words, they’ve established standards and boundaries. Once you’ve done that, it is much easier to confront those who step outside of the standards and boundaries that everyone knows you’ve established for your people. With this approach, conflict can be incredibly constructive.

How to Confront Bad Behavior: In Four Steps

First: Clarify What You Want 

Here's what Mary should do: First, she need to clarify what she wants. This is something she should start before the meeting, on her own. Conversations that deal with conflict can be tense, and sometimes people can lose sight of what they actually want. In the heat of the moment people can blurt something stupid like "fine, I don't want to work here anyway… I quit!" 

Mary doesn't actually want to quit, but she might get upset in the moment. She should avoid that by clarifying exactly what she wants out of the confrontation. Mary should write it out on paper before she enters the conversation. If she wants a certain behavior to stop, she should write that down. If she want a peaceful working relationship, or simply wants to understand her CEO, she should write that down. 

Second: Establish Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect

Shared purpose and shared respect is very important. This is critical because Mary's CEO won't listen to her if he thinks she doesn't respect him, or if he thinks she has an agenda different than his. Mary wants to find common ground as quickly as she can. 

Authentic Leaders will often start the conversation by highlighting the things that they respect about the other person, as well as things that both parties want. 

For example" You want this company to succeed, and so do I. You are amazing with the numbers. You're great with clients."

By establishing mutual purpose and mutual respect Mary will help the CEO understand and trust her motives. That opens him up to hear what she has to say.

Third: State The Facts.

The best leaders will use facts to anchor the conversation. By leading with facts and avoiding opinions, Mary makes it difficult for her CEO to interpret the confrontation as a personal attack. Simply stating her observations over a period of time is enough to get the conversation started. 

For example, Mary could start by saying " Yesterday in our all staff meeting, you said that respect and humility are our core values (fact). I loved that approach. But then this morning I heard you yell at John in the break room in front of five other employees (fact). I don't want to jump to conclusions, but I'm not sure how to reconcile what you said with what you did. I thought it would be best to come directly to you about it."

Fourth: Understand Their Story:

One of the foundations of leadership is seeking to understand before being understood. Mary should avoid jumping to conclusions at all costs, and get as much information from her CEO as she can. 

When you're in a situation with a lot of tension, it can be easy to lose sight of exactly how to encourage others to tell you what they're thinking. Here's a great phrase to use.

"Help me understand." 

People tend to want to explain their side of the story, if given a chance. So, Mary should outline her observations of his behavior and the facts that she's seen.... then ask for clarification. Mary might finish explaining her observation by saying (With a completely open and non-judgmental tone) "I don't want to jump to conclusions, but I'm not sure how to reconcile what you said with what you did. I thought it would be best to come directly to you about it..."Help me understand what's happening here."

In this way, Mary creates a psychologically safe environment for her CEO to be candid and address the issue at hand without becoming defensive. At this point Mary has demonstrated clear respect for her CEO, but also a commitment to addressing challenging issues head-on.