Confrontation Doesn’t Have to be a Leader’s Nightmare

by BCallin

Handling confrontations in a clear and nonthreatening manner is and important skill for a leader to learn. It could mean the difference between productivity and high turnover.

People naturally fear confrontations, but it is the responsibility of a leader to overcome that fear. Learning how to utilize I-Messages when approaching an uncomfortable confrontation may mean the difference between an employee's person growth within or leaving the company prematurely.

Leaders solve problems; that comes with the job.

However, not all leaders have the innate skills required to solve every problem in the most efficient way, especially when it involves a human element. Dealing with difficult employees or employees in general requires some level of confrontation and unfortunately, avoiding confrontations is a natural and very human reaction.

When someone’s behavior is causing difficulty within a team, many leaders struggle to resolve the situation without confrontation. Most likely, they can’t. So, the next question must be how to resolve the problem without unnecessarily injuring that person’s ego or sparking deep resentment.

As a leader you may have been faced with these difficult situations:

An otherwise dependable employee works too slowly and holds up the rest of the team.

Another has vital information that that needs to be heard, but is reliably late for meetings. 

Perhaps a fill-in receptionist is impolite on the phone or curt with clients. 

What about that supervisor from another department who just won’t cooperate with you or your team?

What about that employee who enthusiastically volunteers for extra tasks, but then fails to follow up?

All of these examples fall into the leader’s realm of responsibility. They are situations where the leader’s needs for productivity or cooperation are not being met and will inevitably require a confrontation to see resolution.

These particular situations seldom resolve themselves.

Confronting employees or team members with negative feedback requires assertiveness. Surprisingly, there are a number of leaders who do not often utilize this particular skill and are still quite effective in their roles—see the Servant Leader, the Charismatic Leader and many others—which often makes for uncomfortable and awkward confrontations.

Leaders are people first, and people avoid confrontations for various reasons.

Fear of hurting another’s feelings is a valid reason for not wanting to address the situation, or fear that the negligent employee will retaliate with anger. People often respond to negative feedback by starting an argument, or responding with negative feedback of their own. In the least, they may simply just walk away. In essence, it takes courage to enter into a situation of confrontation to address a problem that needs to be resolved at the expense of one’s ego or pride.

One the other hand, allowing a problem to continue at the expense of leader or the team as a whole exhibits permissiveness.

Permissive leaders create more problems for both the employee in question and the company, often leading to a continuation of the problem and a building of resentments in the person on the receiving side of the problem.

Permissiveness and the fear of confrontation often stem from one’s misunderstanding of how to confront a problem. The language we use has a large part in determining the outcome of said confrontation.

The damaging effect of You-messages

When the behavior of another is causing a problem, often the response is to utilize a You-message to describe the problem.

“When you do that, you make everyone frustrated with you.”

“You cause problems for those around you when you act that way.”

“You shouldn’t be late to meetings.”

“You need to be more polite when answering the phones.”

“You think you are helping when you take on extra duties, but when you fail to deliver; you only cause more problems.”

Your behavior is causing me a problem.”

The root of the problem with—aside from the obvious accusatory nature of—the messages above is that they are utilizing at least one, if not more, of the 12 Roadblocks to Communication as outlined by Dr. Thomas Gordon in his leadership training book.

These types of statements cause guilt, lay blame, and often imply criticism or rejection. Not only could they damage a person’s self-esteem, but they also convey a lack of respect. Not only do these types of messages fail to do what they were intended to do (influence the person to change their behavior), they often cause resentment that further diminishes performance.

Owning the Problem

A clear and understandable way to communicate that you are the one owning the problem, and thus taking responsibility for the resolution of said problem, is by utilizing I-Messages. By turning the code of the communication around, one conveys, “I have a problem and need help correcting it,” instead of the alternative, “You have a problem and you need to fix it.”

I-Messages invite the other to offer help in the situation; in essence, they are given the opportunity to volunteer to change their behavior, instead of being told that they must change their behavior.

In interpersonal communication, an I-message or I-statement is an assertion about the feelings, beliefs, values etc. of the person speaking, generally expressed as a sentence beginning with the word "I", and is contrasted with a "you-message...

The three components of I-Messages are:
1) A brief description of the unacceptable behavior, presented in a non-blameful way.
2) A conveyance of the feelings this behavior causes.
3) A relation of the tangible consequences of the behavior.

“When I heard you raise your voice and say “No, no….,that’s not what I promised!” to one of our customers, I get worried that they might get so upset, we may lose their business.”

“Twice last week and once this week, you’ve been 10-15 minutes late to our team meetings. Then after the meetings, you ask me to catch you up on what we’re doing and that is irritating for me since it takes time away from my own work.”

By communicating that you have a problem with the situation and not the person causing the situation you separate the person from the problem. There are bound to still be some bruised egos, as no one likes to hear that they have done something wrong, but people like even less to hear that they are what’s wrong.

Learning to separate and differentiate between the two and the difference between accusatory You-Messages and owning I-Messages is one key to conquering that fear of confrontation.

So, get out there and solve some problems!



For more information on how to utilize I-Messages in your leadership role, visit

Updated: 06/27/2012, BCallin
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BCallin on 10/10/2012

I like the sandwich method. It always work on me and I find it usually works on those I am managing. Saying the positive is always more important than focusing on the negative.

Rose on 07/11/2012

I was always taught to use the sandwich method when offering criticism - say something positive about the person's work, then bring up the thing you want them to change/improve, and then finish with something else positive. That way they will act on the change you want them to make instead of leaving the meeting seething about being criticised and feeling resistant about doing what you want them to.

BCallin on 06/29/2012

I thought it was such a revelation when I learned that confrontations don't have to be confrontational, or at least what I thought of as confrontational. Thank you ladies for your kind words and so glad you liked the article.

Angel on 06/29/2012

Great article! I once had a boss that would avoid confrontation in person like it was the plague. He always sent out emails to handle situations. It was terrible. He would say he did not have time to talk if you tried to confront him in person about the issue. This person was at a VP level too. Great 1st page.

katiem2 on 06/27/2012

Very good stuff here. Interpersonal skill are paramount to success. This is a great way of winning with leadership skills and managing anything that may arise. :)K

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