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Leadership in Confrontation: 3 Scenarios You Must Master


Confrontation is not something most humans look forward to.

It’s often unpleasant, awkward, and uncomfortable. Of course, we all have that person in our lives that is actually a heat-seeking missile for confrontation. It’s almost as if they substitute coffee for confrontation to get them through the day. But, again, most of us are not like that.

So, as a leader, how do we deal with confrontation? A discussion that shape shifts into a heated debate before going nuclear into a war of words. A sharp email directed at you that is dripping with sarcasm and spitefulness with the “reply all” tag on it. A personal attack that leaves no room for creative interpretation or signs of joking around. How do we handle these as leaders with tact and grace while being strong and forward?

Confrontation is difficult, yet inevitable. Here are the three most common scenarios you will see and the best way to handle them.

When Someone Vehemently Disagrees With You

There are many flavors of disagreement. Studies in philosophy show that there are two main types of disagreements: disagreements in attitude and disagreements in beliefs.

Disagreement in attitude deals with an emotional difference(approval or disapproval in the matter at hand, positive or negative feelings), while disagreement in belief is a disagreement steeped in fact(the sky is blue, no it’s gray).

Whether in attitude or belief, spirited debate that remains constructive is a telltale sign that people are taking ownership. Great leaders allow their junior leaders to “stand on the table” and passionately convey why and how they want to do something: begin a project, take on a competitor, introduce a new product – whatever it is, embrace the healthy discussion of a disagreement.

Remember, verbiage matters and nothing is personal — someone who disagrees with you might just be right.

When Someone Blatantly Ignores Your Instructions

This is a tough one because it feels personal. In fact, it can be a little bit embarrassing when someone blows you off. First, do not assume anything. The first thing to consider is that there is a distinct possibility that you were not specific enough in your instructions or there was enough ambiguity for them to give the impression of ignorance.

Make sure this person is fully aware of your instructions, standards, or expectations. Ask them(without using a condescending tone) if they are clear on how you wanted something accomplished.

As leaders, we have this vision on how we want things to go. This happens more often than I would like to count with my lacrosse team. When I’m out there wearing my ball cap and coaches whistle on the field, I expect drills and plays to be ran a certain way.

When they are not, it is easy to go high and right without fully considering the players point of view. Often times, confusion or a lack of instruction is to blame for the perceived ignorance.

When Someone Calls You Out In Front Of Everyone

If someone ignoring you cuts you deep, then someone calling you out feels like a tomahawk strike to your soul. Do not think twice here – make certain that person understands that boat doesn’t float here. Separate that person in the moment or very shortly thereafter to discuss why they felt it necessary to call you out.

There are countless reasons why someone may feel the necessity to put you on the spot, but there is no better way to wither in the face of this by not acknowledging it or letting it slide. No anger necessary, but a stern tone is best to confront this challenge.

As a young naval officer, I had a Chief Petty Officer that loved to call me out – I actually think he enjoyed it. He was an outstanding technician, but struggled to accept or acknowledge my leadership because I was almost fifteen years younger than him. His behavior was corrosive and a poor example to our younger, more impressionable troops.

After one too many times of withering like a delicate flower when he called me out in front of the division, I decided to take action. I would immediately dismiss the troops and order for Chief to stay behind.

Once alone with him and while maintaining a professional tone, I would sternly ask why he felt it necessary to act in this manner and set a poor example for our younger troops. Behind closed doors, I expressed my intention of having the same level of respect shown to me that I displayed to him.

Furthermore, if he had an issue with the way we ran things; he could always take that up with me. However, never in a way that inappropriately challenged me, personally, in front of our sailors.


Football coach Bill Parcells once said, “I think confrontation is healthy because it clears the air very quickly.” Stay respectful, stay firm, and keep leadership confrontation healthy.

About the author, Tim

US Navy Surface Warfare Officer.
Lacrosse Player.

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