Tory Johnson: Avoid Confrontation at Your Own Risk

I'm often asked for advice on how to determine if a colleague or boss is dissatisfied with your performance. Some people wonder if it's best to let sleeping dogs lie. In other words, don't ask because it risks calling attention to your weaknesses. In most cases, I tend to disagree.

The more experience you have to your credit, the more your intuition is likely to serve you well. You know when people are moody or having a bad day versus times when there's a lingering issue that may explode. Your gut instinct enables you to sense potential problems and respond to them before they snowball into larger issues.

For example, you may spot a change in behavior with a colleague. She used to always ask if you wanted coffee before she made her daily run to Starbucks. Now, even though she still goes out to grab her cup of joe, she hasn't extended the offer to you in weeks. You're not entirely sure what's at the root of her distance and cool behavior, but you are convinced that something is going on.

Don't dismiss your concerns. Without overreacting, ask yourself, "What may have precipitated this change? Is this colleague going through a challenge? Or does this seem to involve me?"

If the behavior and your concerns persist, act on it. Since you don't yet know the whole story, tread lightly. Don't assume that the problem is a reflection on you.

State Your Concerns Directly

Start by attempting to get more information in a non-confrontational manner. Connect with a compliment and then state your concern. For example, "I value your opinion, and our professional relationship matters a great deal to me. In the last month there's been a noticeable shift from our daily conversations to very little communication at all. I'm hoping that you'll tell me what's at the root of this change."

If possible, avoid asking, "Is there a problem?" or "Did I do something wrong?" Generally you won't get an honest answer because it's very easy for someone to simply say no in an attempt to brush you off and avoid an uncomfortable confrontation.

Even when you approach the situation directly and respectfully, you may encounter some resistance. The other person may initially say, "No, everything is fine," which is often the reaction when caught off guard. In such an instance, you can reiterate your concern, without sounding any alarms. "If there is anything I can help with or do differently, please let me know. You can always be candid and straight with me."

In this case, even though you may not unearth the issue, you may spark a change in behavior. For example, the colleague who's ignored you on her coffee run may go back to including you again.

Try to Avoid Arguments

If you do encounter a candid co-worker who responds by admitting that he or she is troubled by you or your actions, be sure to have an open, non-contentious dialogue. Be receptive to hearing the criticism, as opposed to be alarmed or defensive, even if you were unprepared for what he or she might say. If you need a moment or two to gather your thoughts before addressing the issues, ask for that time: "I understand what you're saying and I'd like to address your concerns."

Remain calm and measured, since the outcome is often determined by the way you handle yourself. Tone and delivery can be even more important than the specific words you choose.

Maybe your concern is with a boss who used to give you daily feedback and direction on your work, along with briefings about things happening in other departments. In the last month he has claimed to be too busy to talk to you, which is entirely out of character for him.

Instead of confronting him and catching him off guard, ask to set up a meeting. "I'd like to arrange a time where we can establish that everything is on track." That would then give the boss the cue at the time of that meeting to say, "No, things are not on track," or "Yes, everything is on track."

You can approach this subject during the meeting by saying, "There's been a shift in our daily communication. Are there things that I'm doing that you would like me to do differently?"

Hopefully, you'll hear that all is well between you and the boss. Perhaps you haven't talked as much in recent weeks because he's consumed with other pressing needs.

Don't Be Defensive

Other times, unfortunately, you'll learn that there are indeed problems with your performance. Don't hide from the concerns or get overly defensive, as that will make the situation worse. Instead, ask direct questions about what you can do to improve your work.

Don't allow yourself to be pummeled unfairly or inaccurately. Be prepared to speak up to share details about results you've achieved or problems you've encountered that are beyond your control. Set specific goals about how and when your future work will be measured. Agree to keep the lines of communication open and to meet again to revisit these issues. Reassure the boss that you're committed to rising to the challenge and making this work.

No matter what the outcome, it's always smarter to have the benefit of knowledge gained by asking questions and addressing potential concerns directly. Resist the urge to bury your head in hopes that problems will just disappear. If only it were that easy.

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