A Sure Way to Fail When Confronting Someone

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I had one of my best leadership experiences in my fourth year of college when I agreed to be a resident assistant. That meant that I was responsible for a floor of young men (mostly first year students) in a dorm. It wasn’t co-ed. Just massive amounts of bravado and testosterone everywhere.

There were standards I had to enforce. Basic things. Controlling after hours noise, intervening in disputes, and helping guys dealing with a wide range of issues. Mind you, I knew almost nothing myself, but perhaps the hope was that they knew even a little bit less than me. I just had to figure it out.

So, one night, a particularly… spirited (?) 18 year old was out of control. Nothing terrible, just shouting and laughing with guys in his room late into the night. His neighbors didn’t appreciate it and came to me for help.

I knew exactly what to do.

I marched into his room, and in front of his friends, called him out and gave him a bit of a dressing down. He immediately flared back and defied me, and I quickly realized that I was in an unwinnable power struggle.

I had some silly little punishments that I could hand out, but they were essentially meaningless if I lost the respect of him and his friends. That’s the difference between power and authority by the way. Power forces people to obey, while people want to obey and please leaders who have authority. I didn’t know that back then.

A person forced against their will is of the same opinion still.

I sensed that I needed to get him away from his friends. So, I asked him to step into the hall so we could speak privately. Things immediately cooled down. I explained the situation and he meekly agreed to quiet down.

In front of his friends he was a lion; by himself he turned into a lamb. Reflecting on it later, it dawned on me that he couldn’t lose face in front of his friends and I had forced him into a situation where he felt like he had to fight back or risk losing their respect. I could have skipped the power struggle if I had spoken with him privately from the start.

My tip for today is simple:

Correct/confront/punish in private.

Praise/thank/reward in public.

Of course there are times when outrageous public infractions require a public response, but we’ll save that for another time.

In the meantime, use this simple tip to get a little bit better at dealing with people.

Getting ahead is about getting started,

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Written by Trevor Throness
Trevor is a veteran coach, keynote speaker, and the author of the book “The Power of People Skills” released by Career Press NY in 2017. He’s also written for or been featured in places like Forbes, Inc, The NY Post, The Globe and Mail, Entrepreneur, CEO Magazine, and numerous podcasts and interviews.


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