How to Confront Employees Without Killing Their Spirit

If I were to ask you to list your five least favorite things to do as a leader, my guess is that “confronting an employee” would have a good chance of being on that list (and “firing an employee” would probably be a couple of slots ahead of that).

So, the question is, “Why?” Why is it that confrontation is such a dreaded activity by so many of us, even though most of us understand, at least at an intellectual level, that confrontation is critical to success?

My five best guesses are

  1. We’re afraid of the blowback (i.e. will the employee quit or be grumpy or complain to others, etc.)
  2. We don’t like people to be upset with us (i.e. we like to be liked and confronted employees rarely like the person who calls them on the carpet)
  3. We’ve never seen it modeled well (i.e. if something has always been a bad experience for us, why would we want to inflict that on someone else)
  4. We hope it all blow over (i.e. we live in a fantasy world)
  5. We have some misunderstandings about confrontation (i.e. if we think wrongly about something, we won’t want to do it)

That said, regardless of why we don’t confront our employees more often, the reality is that we have to do it and we have to do it more often. Now, your workplace may be different, but I’ve never seen a business where everyone was performing at 100% and where everything and everyone was in alignment.

In light of that, how can you go about confronting your employees more often in a way that doesn’t demean them or kill their spirit in order that your employees might get better and your business might get better? The following are my top recommendations.

1. Check Yourself and Your Motives First

Back in my old pastoring days I used to talk with parents all the time about the difference between discipline and punishment (and they are radically different). Discipline is about correcting a child so that they perform better in the future. Punishment is about getting your frustration out on a child because they’ve made you mad for something they did in the past (even if the past was five seconds ago).

The focal points are radically different between the two. Discipline is focused on what’s best for the child; punishment is focused on the parent. Discipline is focused on the future; punishment on the past. If you get that difference, you can become great at confronting.

In other words, if you’re angry or frustrated and your emotions have the best of you, chances are, your motives are not good and you’re moving toward punishing your employee (DON’T). In fact, one of my rules is that anytime a leader raises their voice or yells, they’re in the wrong (assuming you’re not in a fire fight in a battle zone where lives are at stake).

However, if your emotions are in check and this isn’t about you and how you feel, but about what is best for your employee, then you’re heading toward discipline—which is about helping your employee become great at what he or she does, as well as being a great team player.

Note: If your mindset is that confrontation is about what’s in the best interest of your employee (becoming the best they can be at what you’ve hired them to do), then you’ll find that confrontation will lose its bitter taste and you’ll look forward to doing it more often.

2. Make Sure You Have All the Facts First

One of the biggest mistakes you and I can make as a leader is to assume we have all the facts. Just because someone says that Joe has done something or that XYZ happened does not mean Joe did that thing (or at least the way it was described). In 90+% of the cases, there is always another side of the story.

Moreover, and this is key, you want to make sure you have the objective facts. In general, most people, when describing something they think is bad will overstate the case. “Joe completely obliterated Mr. Hendricks when he called our call center. Joe was completely rude and disrespectful …” Your job is to ask, “Okay, what exactly was the situation? What exactly did he say? What’s the history the call center has with Mr. Hendricks? Etc.”

“Did anyone else hear this conversation?” “Has this ever occurred before with Joe?” “What evidence do you have?” Etc. in other words, don’t assume anything. Make sure you have as many facts as possible before you have the conversation with Joe.

3. Confront in Private

No one (let me repeat, no one) likes to be confronted in public. If the goal is to confront your employees without killing their spirit, then never confront in public (Note: There are some times when you need to call out an employee for something they’ve done in a public setting. For ex. maybe they made an inappropriate comment in a public meeting and you need to deal with that issue in the moment or else nothing else positive will happen in that meeting. In that case, you might have to say something like. “Angela, you need to take a breath and restate what you just said in a way that doesn’t demean Alice” and then do the main confronting part afterwards—but you get my point).

In the above scenario, I would then say to Angela after the meeting, “Hey Angela, we need to talk about what just happened in this meeting. Can you meet me in my office in fifteen minutes?”

4. Make Sure You Separate Out the Person and The Behavior

Another classic confrontation mistake that kills morale and someone’s spirit it to make the issue personal (meaning personal to the employee). Saying something like, “You’re the stupidest, laziest employee in the history of our company,” because they didn’t complete a project on time makes the incompletion personal (i.e. an indictment of their character).

Good confrontation always focuses on the behavior and whenever possible, objective data. “Ahmed, last month you promised that you’d complete this project by last Wednesday. It’s now Monday. And, as you know, this isn’t an isolated incident. This is the third project this year where you haven’t delivered your project on time …” That’s about behavior and specific facts. Either Ahmed did or didn’t complete the project(s) on time.

Or let’s say that George has a tendency to be a little inappropriate with some of the women in your workplace. Saying something like, “George, you’re a sleaze ball and it’s got to stop,” is probably inappropriate as well. On the other hand, saying, “George, three women on your floor have talked to me about how uncomfortable they feel about how you brush past them when there is plenty of room in the hallway or how you tend to put your hand on their shoulder when you talk with them or how when you hold a door open for them you tend to put your hand on their back when they pass …” All of those statements focus on the behavior (not the name calling of “sleaze ball”).

5. Give Them Space to Respond

As I said in point two, make sure you have all the facts. In this case, you may not have all of them until you have the confrontation conversation. In other words, don’t assume you have all the facts, even if you’ve done your research ahead of time. I know I’ve been in situations (and maybe you have too) where someone has come to some conclusions that were/are patently false … but they hadn’t/haven’t talked with you yet. And if that’s true for us, it just might be true for them as well.

So, instead of starting the conversation off as a done deal, engage them in the conversation. “Mary, two people in your department have talked to me about [XYZ] so I thought it would helpful for the two of us to have a conversation about that. However, before we get too far into this conversation I’d like to hear what you have to say about [XYZ].”

Note: You might be surprised to find out that they didn’t even know a problem existed, which is a completely different conversation than one with an employee who has a willful disregard toward someone or something. Plus, you might be surprised that there are some other issues outside of work that might be affecting their work

6. Involve Them in the Resolution

Once you get clarity on what actually happened and why, and if you want to help them get better, get them to come up with some ideas for moving forward. Why? Because what people help create, they tend to own. Note: This doesn’t mean you can’t come up with ideas or the plan, it simply means that you want them to feel like they helped move this issue forward.

“So, John, what are your best ideas for how we can correct this customer service issue, while making sure it won’t happen again?”

Remember, the goal is not “who came up with the plan.” The goal is for them to change their behavior so they behave better in the future. And John will feel far more empowered if he feels that he helped create the plan than he will if one is thrust upon him.

7. Cast Vision For Them

Remember where this blog post started? I asked, “How can you confront someone without killing their spirit?” Well, one way to do that is to affirm that you still believe in the person. And the best way I know of to do that is to communicate to them that you still believe in them and that you see a better version of them in the future.

“Sally, what we’ve been talking about today is simply about a behavior that needs to change. We have not been talking about who you are a person. When I hired you, I believed that you had what it would take to succeed here at ABC … and that has not changed. If you follow through on these four things we discussed here today, I am confident that you’ll be back on track and you’ll once again be one of our star performers. I trusted your three years ago when I hired you and I trust you today …”

8. A Few More Quick Hits

Finally, here are a couple of last-minute quick hit ideas to make sure you have the best possible confrontation experience.

  1. Use the word, “I” over “You” (i.e. “I noticed …” vs. “You keep on …”)
  2. Be specific (i.e. generalities don’t work well because they’re had to fix)
  3. Don’t beat around the bush with small talk. Get to the issue quickly.
  4. Don’t let problems linger for weeks, months, or years. It’s not fair to you, the employee, the rest of your team, your customers and the potential customers who could be benefiting from your products and/or services if this wasn’t an issue. The longer you wait, the harder it is. Confront early. Confront fast.
  5. Don’t forget to offer coaching help when appropriate. Great leadership is about producing results through other people. The better your people are, the better you are.

So, there you go. A baker’s dozen of ideas to help you become better at confronting your employees. The only question remaining at this point is, who do you need to have a crucial conversation with?

To your accelerated success!

P.S. If you have some other ideas about how to be a better confronter, make sure you add them to the comments section below (or click here >> if you’re reading this by email or RSS feed)


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