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How to Handle Confrontation, Part I

By Joe Santana

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To get a better understanding of the business needs of the organization, one of the most important activities that IT leaders can engage in today is spending time with their business counterparts.

But an unavoidable (and often unanticipated) by-product of drawing closer to the business side, however, will be an increase in the opportunity for confrontations due to differences in perspective between business unit leaders and IT leaders.

Another type of confrontation that will very likely arise as a CIO attempts to work more closely with business leaders will come from the CIO's IT lieutenants.

These IT managers who report to the CIO may feel left behind by a CIO that is more focused on "managing up" and to the needs of the business as opposed to being more closely involved with managing operations.

Stepping up to the confrontations arising from these conflicts is certainly not easy. We humans are wired to see confrontation as demanding either a flight-or-fight response. Since running away does not appeal to most of us and fighting or confronting often ends in a more painful situation, the general impulse on the part of most people is to avoid any situation that can lead to confrontation.

Nevertheless, I've personally found that these types of uncomfortable confrontations actually present the best opportunities for building strong business relationships if properly handled.

For a CIO that is seeking to evolve their IT into a business aligned and fully engaged organization that can meet the needs of the 21st Century business enterprise, seeking and successfully handling the right confrontation is, I dare say, a vital skill.

So, here is the good news.

There are many learnable options for effectively handling confrontations without resorting to running away or fighting. I recently came across an excellent book by the writing team of Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler titled Crucial Confrontations that, in my opinion, is one of the best works on this topic.

Specifically regarding IT, Joseph Grenny writes that, "[t]hrough a systematic study of IT and other leader's, we've found that those who exert the most influence in organizations are those who are best at handling crucial confrontations."

He adds that these are IT leaders who effectively respond to "those uncomfortable occasions where we have to step up to some broken promise, violated expectation or bad behavior."

But, before we start discussing other options, let's first take a look at how your current confrontation handling skills are serving you:

Respond to the following questions on a scale from one to five to indicate the following:

1. Strong No; 2. Mild No; 3. Neither Yes or No; 4. Mild Yes; 5. Strong Yes.

Create three separate lists and ask yourself the same set of questions relative to your dealings with:

  • Peers.
  • Subordinates (your subordinates as well as you peer's subordinates).
  • Your superiors.
  • A. Do you regularly seek relationships with business groups, especially those that might be most critical of you and your team?

    B. Do you confront important issues as they come up in a manner that results in fixing the problem and a better relationship with the person originally in conflict with you?

    C. Do you feel that when you engage in conflicts that you permanently resolve problems relative to broken commitments, bad behavior and lack of accountability with your subordinates?

    D. Do you feel that when you engage in conflicts that you permanently resolve problems relative to broken commitments, bad behavior and lack of accountability with your peers?

    E. Do you feel that when you engage in conflicts that you permanently resolve problems relative to broken commitments, bad behavior and lack of accountability with your boss?

    If you scored a 25 on this test for any of the three groups, you are effectively seeking and handling conflict within that group.

    If you scored a 15 or lower with any group, you probably feel your sphere of influence shrinking within that group (if it hasn't, it probably will).

    Regardless of how you scored, I invite you to join me for next month's column. In part two of this series, I will share six conflict handling steps that will take the bottom scorers out of the corner and the top scorers to an even higher level of confrontation handling success with any of these groups.

    Joe Santana is an IT organizational development specialist and thought-leader and co-author of "Manage IT." He can be reached at joesantana2003@cs.com or via his Web site joesantana.com.