Project Practitioners > Project Management and the Art of Confrontation

Project Management and the Art of Confrontation

By Margaret de Haan


I have been brushing up on my negotiation skills to ensure my sanity lately, and came across a fantastic presentation deck about confrontation that I am sure every Project Manager on the planet can benefit from.  I have summarized in my own words the highlights below, including some personal thoughts regarding the conclusions and comments made.  If you would like to review the entire deck, please access the following link:

In terms of background on this “tool”, there are a few different confrontational types of behavior: Aggressive; Non-Assertive & Assertive – the “preferred” method.  Assertive behavior involves face-to-face, respectful communication, whereas aggressive confrontation is threatening to the receiver and can be identified through body language, vocal tone and volume.  To be assertive in a successful confrontation you are best to communicate your needs, desires and expectations, and to be fair and flexible during the exchange.  Confrontation is defined as “a face-to-face discussion between two parties with a desired outcome of change in the behavior of the confronted party.  To define a successful confrontation results in an accountable discussion resulting in resolution of the problem and an improved relationship between the two parties.  I’m personally surprised at how the common understanding of a confrontation is very negative in nature and is linked to aggression, something I though as well before reviewing this documentation.  In gaining a different perspective and attitude, I hope to learn to use it as a positive tool with the team to reduce avoidance and start using confrontation to my advantage.

If you become skilled at using a confrontational style, you will be seen as a leader, and you will build strong relationships which you can leverage.  If you are unskilled at confrontation but confront others anyway, you will be viewed as an ineffective bully, and many relationships that you have will be broken ones where your allies and friends within the organization will be few and far between.  There is a strategy and process to confrontation outlined in the deck of three high level steps: introspection; respect; action.  As with any Project Management interaction , prior to any confrontation, preparation is important.  To get the best results there are a number of questions and issues to work through:

1)     What are your expectations?  Be careful with creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you expect things to go poorly they probably will.  I prefer to spin the label on this as to “What outcome do you want?”

2)     What is the root cause of the incongruence?  Obviously the party that you will be confronting sees things much differently than you do, do you know why?  What is their motivation?  How can you frame your message to be better accepted and not rejected?

3)     What are the consequences on the table?  Who wins, who loses depending on the outcome and how could you minimize negative consequences to the “confrontee” to make it easier for them to make the change?

4)     Think “CPR” – Content/Pattern/Relationship.  Again, what is the message and how do you come through the confrontation with a behavior change that results in a positive relationship?

5)     What needs to change?  Let’s face it, if you have to change something yourself, isn’t it easier if you already have a roadmap?  Can you help to show your “confrontee” how to make the change in an easy, advantageous way?

When you are preparing for the confrontation, you need to be aware of some traps that you can easily fall into that are common problems when confronting others.  First, don’t overemphasize personality based explanations for behaviors.  I have learned that if you are thinking “he always sides with Operations…” you are not just doing that, but you are also overgeneralizing.  Statements like “It’s because he’s only focused on company politics” even inside your own head will also create a framework that perpetuates the problem as you are more likely to place future behaviors into the same reasoning.  Two things to keep in mind are 1) personal behavior is based more on the kind of person they are rather than social and environmental factors and 2) you will be less likely to incorrectly attribute behaviors if you are conscious of evaluating your own behavior.  Before you assume that you know why someone does something, stop and think about it.  I have learned through my experience that most times when you know why someone is acting the way they are, you’re wrong.

So back to the actual confrontation.  Before you actually execute, you need to ask yourself, “is it worth it?”  What are the risks?  You probably have some inkling of how that individual will react, will their reaction be something that you can manage?  Will they be reasonable?  What about your ability to manage your emotions?  Are you too wrapped up in the problem and angry?  Will you be able to stay calm throughout the exchange?  And finally, is it a fight that you need to win? What happens if you just let it go? The last thing that you, or the team, needs is for a confrontation to go bad.  If not managed properly the outcome could end up making the entire situation a lot worse than before you started.  Make sure that you prepare, that you understand the issue and that you make no assumptions.

Think about the success factors that contribute to the “win”.  There is a proper time and place for theconfrontation, remember to stay calm and don’t threaten during the exchange.  Communicate effectively and with respect, and find a motivation you can communicate to assist in effecting the change by the individual you are confronting.  Help the individual to make that change, and be flexible and focused.  Once you are successful, make sure you get agreement and follow up!

So after reviewing the what, why and how of confrontation, I started thinking about how we can better put this for use in our daily life.  The more I thought about it, I realized that it could be valuable to create a “Rules or Engagement” for managing conflict within the team. Creating an environment where individuals can have open discussion and disagreements safely, could be a proactive way of avoiding the need for confrontations.  Also, communicating what isn’t acceptable during debates will help to set and manage expectations and hopefully drive respectful exchanges.

So now that you know how to properly manage confrontation, how can you put his knowledge to use? 

Margaret de Haan – MBA, PMP, CSM

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