Picture this:  you’re in a large boardroom, maybe 15 people around the table. The leader of the group is going on about wanting to change direction on major gift strategy. Everyone in the room thinks it’s a bad idea…except the leader. The problem is that no one says anything.
You leave the meeting feeling discouraged and depressed. This is a missed opportunity.
Or, how about this scenario:  there is a manager at a non-profit who manages four MGO’s. Three of the MGO’s are exceeding budget, they’re on top of it and their donors are responding. One MGO is struggling. She is not meeting her budget, she’s got a bad attitude and is infecting other staff with her negativity.
The manager, instead of sitting down with her, reviewing her work and attitude and coming up with a solid turnaround strategy, continues to let it slide.  He’s afraid of confrontation.  The result is the office becomes toxic and overall revenue is not met because one MGO has fallen behind.  Another missed opportunity.
Richard and I run into these types of situations all the time…non-profits that breed a culture where no one can confront a situation or person for fear of a negative consequence.
In some organizations we see a culture in which everyone just tries to get along and if something negative comes up, they quickly sweep it under the carpet. Other organizations are steeped in fear of leadership, so much so that no one can voice a dissenting opinion or confront a wrong.
Both of these types of organizations are disasters.  But sadly, they are pervasive in our industry.
The first type of organization I mentioned in which leadership tries to make sure “everyone just gets along” usually comes from a leader who has either had a very negative experience with someone in his or her work life, or they’re conflict-averse.
This workplace on the surface looks like everything is great, but when you scratch the surface, you see a lot of tension, stress and passive-aggressive behavior. Do you know this workplace?  Richard and I know a ton of them.
Then, there is the other type of organization where leadership operates and manages using strong-handed fear tactics.  They are the ones in control and you do what they say.  You can speak up in meetings, but you won’t be listened to because one leader or leadership team always makes the decisions.  There tends to be a lot of turnover at organizations like this; that and a lot of Pepto-Bismol is slammed down to cope.
Both of these organizations are toxic because they don’t have a culture of healthy confrontation.  Healthy confrontation can allow for grace and understanding without fear of communicating to someone or a group that they’re doing something wrong, or that their idea will actually cause harm. Healthy confrontation has systems and policies in place that encourage dialogue and foster the challenging of leadership or management without punishment.
So how is a culture of healthy confrontation created?

  1. Boards and leaders make sure that managers in the organization have a healthy self-esteem and value honesty.  Too many leaders are hired by boards and Executive Directors who are only looking at the technical skills and financial successes they have had with other organizations. This can be a big mistake since that is only half of the equation.  If they spent more time figuring out who the person is, what they value and how they solve problems, so many other problems could be avoided.  We cannot tell you how many people who are in positions of leadership are negatively infecting entire organizations because they are not emotionally healthy people.  Healthy leaders and managers create healthy work environments; unhealthy leaders and managers create disasters.
  2. Leaders create policies and procedures that have regular 360 evaluation and feedback.  If employees are only evaluated and not given opportunities to evaluate their bosses or colleagues, there is a problem.  How can managers get better if employees are not allowed to evaluate their performance?  Solid evaluations are key to learning and self-examination.  I’ve run into so many folks who, after working at their organizations for 10 or 15 years, still have never had an evaluation!  That is just sad and wrong.
  3. Managers and leaders foster a workplace of openness and trust. You can sense a positive work environment right away.  I can tell when I walk into an office how open it is to allowing folks to question, disagree and challenge one another.  All you have to do is sit in on one department or staff meeting and you’ll know within 10 minutes.  Positive work environments have leaders and managers who don’t punish their employees for speaking out or coming up with ideas.  Rather, they encourage it.
  4. Employees are encouraged to give their opinions, brainstorm, come up with new policies and strategies and not be left on the “outside.”  Richard and I get so angry when we see employees relegated to the bench of an organization.  Here you have good people with amazing talent and know-how and many times leadership and management treat them as second-class citizens.  Instead, everyone needs to feel like their opinions count and their ideas have a chance to be implemented.  Here’s the thing:  if you really believe that any enterprise requires ALL the skills and abilities of ALL the people to succeed, then you will operate in a manner that includes everyone.  I am constantly amazed at how many leaders and managers there are who truly believe that it’s just about them.  Amazing, pathetic and sad!

An environment that promotes trust creates healthy confrontation, and healthy confrontation creates growth in you and your colleagues.
Ultimately your donors will be the ones who benefit from this.  Donors will respond to organizations that have positive employees who are doing incredible things in the world.
Healthy confrontation is not easy.  It takes hard work.  But if leadership and management are committed to a positive, growth-filled work environment, it’s necessary for a successful organization.  Isn’t that what you really want?  And if it is, then make a commitment today to speak up next time.  And if you are listened to and included, you will know you are in the right place.