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Courage to say what needs to be said

When we hear the word ‘confrontation’ it maybe evokes a feeling within us. It maybe has some negative press and is seen as something to be avoided, something painful. It conjures images of angry people exchanging views and relationships then souring. But, let’s not allow this one-sided spin on the word hold us back from good leadership.

To ‘confront’ comes from mid 16th century: from French confronter, from medieval Latin confrontare, from Latin con- ‘with’ + frons, front-‘face’. In other words, it is about facing something face on. Patrick Lencioni, in his 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, cites ‘fear of conflict’ as the second element of a dysfunctional team. When, as a team, we fail to confront the tricky things for fear of trouble, we create more of a problem. The issue either goes undressed, potentially getting worse or becomes something talked about in back-channel politics.

So how do you confront things and build up the courage to say what needs to be said?

It’s not what you do but the way that you do it

Imagine a scenario, you are in a boat and there is a hole in it and water is coming in. Imagine knowing it is there but not talking to those in the boat with you about it. Imagine ignoring it for fear of someone taking offence. Imagine doing nothing about it to plug the hole. You can imagine it but would you let it happen? Confronting the issue that is causing you harm, bit by bit, makes sense. Confronting is not bad.

What has caused ‘confrontation’ bad press and a bad reputation, is not the verb of confronting, it is the adverb, the way that it has been done. What sits at the root of the issue is the motive. Compare these two confrontations:

I really like you and I want the best for you. That means helping you to be the best that you can be. I would therefore like to talk about the problem we had yesterday with the interaction with Mrs X to see how we can improve things.

Your performance yesterday was poor. You didn’t speak to the customer well. That needs to improve or you will go on a capability.

The first one’s motive is plain to see – I want the best for you. I want you to be better and feel more confident. I want the best for our organisation.

The second one is less obvious, it is not stated, but the undercurrent is there. Do I want to lift them up or put them down?

The first thing that helps us have courage to say what needs to be said is to be clear on our motive. If this conversation is to help the person to improve, to help the organisation to be better, then this clarity helps us see the importance of saying what needs to be said.

Key Questions: What is my motive? Is it for the good of the person and/or the organisation?


Confronting does however still require courage. As we explore courageous leadership in this series, we have already seen that there is an intrinsic link between courage and vulnerability. This is the same here with confronting an issue. We know that raising the issue with the person may get a reaction and might cause discomfort. We have to risk that, to be vulnerable ourselves to step into that unknown space, to risk tension.

This is the second thing that helps us to have courage to say what needs to be said. Acknowledge the tension and vulnerability. Say to yourself what you are worried about. Don’t dismiss it. Acknowledge it.

Key Questions: What am I worried might happen as a result of this conversation? What am I worried that I can’t manage? What might help me manage it?

What if I do? What if I don’t?

Imagine the scene, one of your staff is rude to customers or visitors to your organisation. They are ‘front of house’ and so it happens quite a bit. You ask yourself, if I speak to them about it then it could go nasty. They could take offence, they could shout. We are right to consider what could happen. But often we think of the worst thing. Do the risk analysis and ‘pre-mortem’ properly, we have 2 steps, each with the same two sub-questions:

1. What could happen if I have this conversation?

  • What could go wrong?

  • What might be positive?

2. What could happen if I don’t have this conversation?

  • What could go wrong?

  • What might be positive?

We often see the danger in having the conversation. What we often don’t examine is the danger if we don’t have the conversation. When we compare the impact of the two conversations it can help us to have the courage to have it. When we look at the balance of risks. I risk upsetting the person if I have a conversation vs I risk upsetting other staff and customers if I don’t. This is the third thing that helps us to have courage to say what needs to be said. Seeing the risk if we don’t have it.

Key Questions: What do I risk if I have a conversation? What do I risk if I don’t have a conversation? Which is the biggest risk?

The standard becomes the minimum standard that you accept

When you lead an organisation, you have a picture of what you want it to look like. As a leader, we then take people on a journey to reach that destination. We set the image of that destination and therefore the standard that we accept becomes the destination. If we want our organisation to be friendly and welcoming, but yet we accept our staff answering back and using an abrupt tone, then the standard you get is lower than what you want it to be.

The fourth element that helps us to have courage to say what needs to be said is about the standard that you want.

Key Questions: What standard do I want? Does this behaviour that I am considering confronting meet that standard?

The bottom line

The bottom line is if you love your organisation and love your people and know the direction you want to travel in, you will engage in the difficult conversations, because your reason for the conversation is greater than your reason not to have the conversation. That brings courage to say what needs to be said.


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