Confrontation within co-operatives is the key to success

Why staying silent isn’t an option Confrontation can be emotionally challenging. But as the past two years have shown us, the lack of confrontation was one of many problems faced...

Why staying silent isn’t an option

Confrontation can be emotionally challenging. But as the past two years have shown us, the lack of confrontation was one of many problems faced in the Co-operative Group.

Look at this from the perspective of a human resources manager.

It can be especially challenging for the other person (as they might not have seen it coming), but it is not true that confrontation always results in conflict.

For many of us, when we identify a gap in performance or in the way someone treats us at work, the option of doing nothing becomes the lesser of two evils and putting our avoidance strategy into effect seems a suitable option. This is a strange logic none of us would readily prescribe as a formula for success, yet the compromised tolerance of the sub-standard is easily found because of someone’s failure to confront it.

Subconsciously deciding that “living with the pain” is more bearable than facing up to the realities of what we are accepting is skewed because of what we are focusing on.

We imagine how awkward it could be, how the other person may react and how much worse things will be for those concerned afterwards. In giving these consideration first, we also lose sight of the prize of what life might look like if the issue or person is confronted in a healthy, positive and ultimately productive way.

Learning to confront other people in a constructive and meaningful way is a mature and considerate skill. It is not a by-product or a privilege of seniority or position, nor is it done with a disregard for how the message is received. Confrontation is perhaps one of the most underused tools in the workplace today and its absence protects the current norms – good and bad.

In recent years, we have seen on a global scale how a failure to confront affects us, and we have all been burned by the unattended “fires” that were blazing in our office buildings. Stop for a moment and think about areas of unresolved conflict in your own team or wider business. How long have they gone unresolved and why have they been left?

The well-documented split of the Co-operative Bank from the Co-operative Group is one of the biggest examples in the mutual sector of the failure to confront issues and people. In his independent report of the situation, Sir Christopher Kelly noted the board allowed “too much latitude” for the chief executive to pursue his goals.

Socially conditioned as we are, looking the other way does not bring progress. People thrive in environments where confrontation is the norm.

While we may not always like being confronted, we always learn things about ourselves that may have remained hidden and will benefit us when we address them. Done correctly, it makes us appreciate the motives of those who confront and, more often than not, take the feedback on board.

For confrontation to become an effective behaviour it must always be used with the prize in mind. We must ask ourselves: what are the benefits of addressing what’s been identified and what is the price of not doing anything? In the case of the Co-operative Group, the long-term benefits would have far outweighed the short term awkwardness arising from confrontation.

Peter Couchman from the Plunkett Foundation was right in January when he said that, sometimes, co-operators are too nice to each other. But this isn’t just an exclusive problem for the co-operative and mutual sectors.

Confrontation isn’t about a revolution, it’s a tool that seeks a positive resolution and enables businesses to change more rapidly. Our members and customers are looking for a prize that requires us to run and not walk, and our businesses are experiencing more radical changes than ever before. So when you’re next faced with the decision to confront or stay silent, what will you choose?

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