Supportive confrontation is a methodology adopted by respectful and highly constructive individuals and teams to ultimately push the boundaries of self-improvement. David Bradford (Stanford) and Allen Cohen ultimately coined the termed in their book Power Up and David utilizes this in his class on High Performance Leadership.
In my career, and notably at Google, we utilize supportive confrontation to improve as individuals and strengthen our collective team in working to continue to build world class products.
So what is it?
The very definition of “confrontation” presumes some measure of hostility or disagreement between parties. In its purse sense, it is appreciated why the name alone instills some level of unsurety in many individuals who undertake this method of feedback adoption. However, the fundamental premise of “supportive confrontation” is a balanced combination of the former with the later - to deal with personal growth in a direct and honest way. Indeed, in the absence of such direct and honest feedback, a host of eventualities ultimately occur including emotional instability, poor accountability and ownership, individual conflict and poor team performance.
The focus for supportive confrontation is to initiate conversations with individuals that you have an obvious mutual respect for and whom would be open to receiving such direct and honest feedback. You should recognize that not all work colleagues (or friends) can undertake this feedback methodology without immediately reacting in a defensive manner — so choosing the nature of your audience is a critical one. The ultimate goal is, through mutual respect of person or people providing such feedback, to abject any form of personal emotion and consider the feedback for what it is — open and honest. In order to improve as an individual, one has to accept all forms of criticism in life and ultimately listen intently, reflect and channel this feedback forward.
Here are some broad level pointers:
- Open transparency from the beginning — If you have asked an individual, or a group, to engage in supportive confrontation, you should illustrate that the purpose of such feedback is to improve and not to engage in personal attacks. The art of this form of feedback is mutual respect for each person and explaining this from the outset is critical to it being successful. Explain from your own perspective how and why this feedback system has been useful in the past and ensure that everyone can empathize with this point of view.
- 3 Top Aspects, 3 Bottom Aspects — Provide each person with three things they are doing well, and three things that they ultimately need to improve on. Feedback should always be direct and actionable — including real examples of what you have noticed and when further helps an individual to consider how they can improve. Good and bad feedback without observable examples makes it difficult for people to reflect and consider — so quantifying your feedback ensures the recipient can undergo self-reflection and retrospectives in their own time.
- Write your feedback statements on cards, give it to the person physically — Writing down your feedback on cards during the session and handing it directly to the person, or people, solidifies it and ensures they can’t simply forget or dismiss the feedback provided.
- No interruptions or responding to feedback for 24 hrs — Provide feedback directly and ensure that no one interrupts, gets defensive or attempts to justify their behaviour for at least 24 hours. The idea of this “post feedback cooling off” period is to allow individuals to consider it for what it is and contemplate how they can improve. You should ensure that everyone understands they aren’t meant to interrupt or justify during the initial meeting.
- Respond with ways to actionable improvement steps, don’t justify — After 24 hours, you should meet again with the individuals that provided feedback. Ideally, as a recipient of feedback, you should seek to provide measurable steps to improve on each component of feedback. Justifying your actions isn’t the purpose of supportive confrontation, it’s about setting actionable methodologies across a set time horizon so others can observe your behaviour and measure this improvement (or not).
- Be Thankful — Thank all those who are involved in giving you feedback. The very purpose of this methodology is to grow and improve as an individual and to remember that those you mutually respect are telling you this because they care about you enough to want you to grow and be better as an individual. As the old adage suggests — “It’s better to know the devil you do, than the devil you don’t”
Feedback, in its rawest sense, is about listening, watching, learning and working to improve after receiving it. You should appreciate those with the courage to undertaken supportive confrontation with you enough, to ensure that you take the feedback seriously and find ways to action and improve on it as an individual. If you feel the feedback is overtly personal or hurtful in nature, you should have the confidence to speak to the individual, or group, after reflection 24 hours later and let them know that. Equally, you should seek to understand their reasoning nature of why they provided it — it will be better for all of you.
That way, you can become a better person, colleague, team member and leader as you grow.