During the early part of my career, managing conflict was very much “in your face.” Managers and co-workers were direct and, at times, forceful in saying what they felt needed to be said. Words were often used like an axe and “let the chips fall where they may.”

That style was harsh, but things were out in the open. Early in my career my direct manager was very blunt in pointing out what he saw as an error in (my) judgment. He asked me to step into his office where he looked me straight in the eye, made his point in very stern language while explaining his clear expectations. After a brief pause, he changed the topic to discuss another issue where he was very supportive. His earlier rebuke was nothing personal. However, it was a learning opportunity which stuck with me the rest of my career.

Things have changed in the workplace, as all forms of confrontation seem to be fading away. While destructive confrontation needed to go away, not all confrontation is bad. For instance, confrontation is a way of life. It’s not uncommon for children to talk back to adults and siblings fuss and argue with each other. It’s part of our DNA.

However, as we grow into adulthood, confrontation seems to become complicated and unwelcome. Many people today try to avoid confrontation. This might be somewhat related to the ease of litigation in our society. Consider something as simple as annual performance evaluations. Prior to the 2000’s, performance evaluations were a time for manager and employee to have a constructive discussion of what happened during the year and what needs to happen in the coming year.

The more effective managers had at least quarterly one-on-one discussions so both parties fully understood how things were going. These discussions typically led to greater understanding which resulted in effective evaluations.

Many managers today are hesitant to give meaningful performance evaluations for a couple reasons: (1) They are afraid to say what they really think, for fear of an angry response. (2) Anything they say or write can be used against the manager or the organization.

What’s the result? Mediocrity and frustration. It can lead to an employee thinking they are doing a good job when they aren’t. Managers and co-workers may ‘hint’ that something is not going well, but the employee is thinking “My last performance evaluation was OK, so I’m doing fine.”

People can spend a good portion of their career underperforming, but never figuring out why they weren’t perceived as a high performer. Many co-workers knew why, but no one wanted to give them negative news. Result: (1) the person didn’t realize their professional aspirations and (2) the company didn’t receive full value from the person’s efforts

I recall an instance in which a supervisor was reassigned to my group. Her previous annual appraisals were very good. It didn’t take long, however, to discover discrepancies in her capabilities. Her previous manager admitted her evaluations were inflated because he wanted to avoid disputes. It took some time for her to correct her shortcomings, but she went on to become a valued employee who was promoted for her achievements.

Things have to be said, but it doesn’t always have to be like butting heads. People can get hurt when they feel under attack. When this happens, people can carry around destructive resentment rather than deal with a difficult situation head on. Problems only fester and get worse, bad feelings run rampant, and everyone suffers. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Most everyone recognizes the value of knowing how to confront a situation, to effectively go face-to-face with negative feedback, unwelcome news, or even uncomfortable questions.

In the middle of my management career, we were introduced to constructive confrontation – a much different approach to managing conflict. In group projects, team members are encouraged to value diverging viewpoints for the betterment of the outcome. Seldom does anyone feel threatened in this environment because this is seen as constructive confrontation.

Constructive confrontation is not mean-spirited. It’s not done with loud voices, being unpleasant, or exhibiting rude behavior. As important, it’s not designed to affix blame. Remember, attack the problem, not the individual.

There are a host of problems in the business world. Orders are delayed or lost. Machines stop working. Quality problems arise. Not enough resources to do the job. People don’t perform well. Unhappy customers. Such problems produce conflicts, but people have to discover the root cause and solve the problem.

Constructive confrontation can accelerate problem-solving. People must be direct and often deal with people face-to-face, quickly, to keep the problem from getting out of control. Everyone needs to concentrate on the problem, not on the individuals caught up in the situation.

Some people seem to think it is impolite to tackle anything or anyone head on, even in a business environment. However, it is the essence of corporate health to bring a problem to the surface, even if this requires a confrontation, so it can be dealt with as quickly as possible. Don’t avoid confrontation but deal with it constructively.