Confronting a Non-Confrontational Leader

What do you do when your leader won’t confront reality? And by reality, I specifically mean underperforming team members.

Rams Butting Heads - Confronting Your Leader

Four Steps to Confronting a Non-Confrontational Leader (Click to Tweet)

I recently wrote about this from the leader’s perspective in a post entitled, Cut the Slack. In in I wrote:

Cutting people slack is code for “do nothing about it.” Cutting your team slack is a failure of leadership. Doing nothing is never an option.

One reader, Steve Pate, had a great question in the comments:

Alright then what do you do when you’re not the “leader” and you watch your boss do this all the time with other team members for the sake of “feelings”?

Behold the Non-Confrontational Leader.

The answer to Steve’s question is that you must confront your leader. Yes, you.

For leaders and non-leaders alike did that just cause you to throw up a little in your mouth? In most organizations, confronting your leader rarely turns out pretty. I’ve done it the right way and the wrong way and along the way, I’ve learned how to do it.

Four Steps to Confronting a Non-Confrontational Leader

Note: Pick a different wording if “confront your leader” is too intimidating or conjures up images of finger-pointing, stomping feet, or you explaining to your spouse why you are no longer employed.

  1. Frame the conversation as a learning opportunity. Your entire objective should be to learn how your leader approaches specific situations. Ask to understand (that is why you normally ask questions, right?). Consider these two opening questions:
Question One: “Why do you always let Joe get away with being late?” (For the full effect, it helps to read that out loud with a nasally, whiny voice while throwing a mini-tantrum)
Question Two: “As a leader, how do you promote team members being on time?”
  • Seek to understand.
  • Avoid accusations.
  • Ask the right questions.
  • Make your question a genuine one, not a passive-aggressive way to get to your point.
  1. Assume you don’t know the answer. Maybe you really do know the answer…that your boss is best friends with Joe and lets him get away with everything. Or maybe it’s because Joe has a sick child who has a doctor’s appointment every Tuesday at 7:00 A.M. that sometimes runs long. By remaining curious and seeking to understand, the truth you are looking for might be revealed. 
  2. Allow solutions to present themselves. In the case of Joe’s tardiness, as your leader explains things, you might state that you never knew that about his child, and that others have wondered about his tardiness. Your boss might then realize his folly and share the information with the team. Now everyone will understand. Your leader is no longer a non-confrontational weakling playing favorites. He is a caring leader, willing to adjust to team members’ circumstances.
  3. When this fails, move on…for now. Sometimes, this approach does not work. Your leader answers vaguely…or poorly. Sometimes, nothing positive will come out of this approach. So, there are next steps, but those are for another time. For now, thank him for his time and move on. Take some time to think about the conversation. What could you have done or said differently? Then start the process over.

You should try this approach at least two or three times before you move on to the next steps, which I will share at a later date. Make sure to subscribe to my RSS feed or get posts via email (and get my free book as a bonus) so you don’t miss it.

Have you ever had to confront a non-confrontational leader? What tips do you have for Steve?

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  • Good stuff Matt!

    I’ve done this myself. It’s always takes courage to do what you are suggesting. Change is hard for everyone, even your boss. So, I also recommend a big dose of patience to anyone attempting what you are suggesting.

    • Patience is key.

      First, you have to accept that change might not occur.

      Second, you must accept that if it does, it might take a while.

      Don’t ever do this expecting epiphanies with magic leprechauns and rainbows suddenly dancing all around. You’ll usually end up disappointed, rather than encouraged by incremental progress.

      • Yep, that’s what I did at first! Took me a few tries before I realized that there was no rainbow and no dancing leps. That was ok though, because I have a squirrel brain. 😉

  • Wade_Thorson

    I think number 2 is valuable in any discussion like this and others. Asking questions as though you don’t know the answer allows others to give input you may have missed, and causes them to think about it a little more as well. And then as it is discussed and moved to number 3 they may get to that point just by verbally explaining things to you.

    • Agreed.

      It took me almost 34 years to learn that sadly, but I did.

  • I haven’t had a non-confrontational leader..but its funny, my wife and I were talking late last night about the manager where she works…my wife is the asst. manager and she has told me that the manager hates confrontation. She hates letting people go, she hates addressing issues. The manager has told me that same thing herself.
    This post, as well as the one that led to it are fantastic in pointing out what the result of NOT confronting issues is, as well as how to adjust. I’m definitely going to share them with the manager! Thanks Matt and Steve!

    • I lean more towards being a non-confrontational leader. This is something I consistently need to work on. Speaking the truth in love is the best way (I’ve found). When I can guide others with truth and with a caring attitude, I generally see positive results.

  • “Ask to understand” – wouldn’t life be easier if everyone did this? No hidden motives, no leading or rhetorical questions – just pure seeking of truth. John Eldredge addresses this sort of thing in “The Utter Relief of Holiness” in the chapter Jesus on Holiness.

    And this sort of non-leadership causes “sanctioned incompetence”. Ick, Steve, I feel your pain. I’ve got no answers, because my approach was to decide the “leader” was an idiot and then I’d change jobs.

    Looking forward to the continuation of the subject, Matt. Thanks for tackling this!

    • Sometimes your approach (decide the leader is an idiot and change jobs) is necessary. We’ll get to that later :)

    • Steve Pate


  • I like to explain how his/her behavior is effecting the group. Which they maybe unaware of.

    • That is important in Step 4b. And how you do it is very important.

      That is one of the upcoming topics on this. You are right on, they rarely know that their unwillingness to confront others is causing major rifts, stress, and morale problems in the organization.

  • When you’re ready to dive into a pool of jell-o, then you’re ready to confront the avoidance-leader, the leader who manages relationships and pretends to lead the organization by avoiding conflicts. Dive in, but have an exit strategy because you will suffocate more often than not if you don’t get in and out quickly.
    There is rarely a rational way to communicate with the avoiders. Challenging them, calling them out with a specific example of how their inactivity will hurt employees, destroy goals and relationships…. Doesn’t matter. Productivity is not the goal. Leadership is not the goal. Doing the right thing is not the goal.
    The goal? Smiles. Lots and lots of smiles. Happy talk at the water cooler. “It’s all good.” That is THE goal.
    These types are dangerous, and frustrating. And very, very real.

    • That is an awesome comment Kathy. I’ll be tweeting this one!

      Thank you for sharing. Love the jello analogy.

  • Steve Pate

    all of you rock! Thanks Matt, as Chris Locurto says, “the ox is in the ditch” right now for me and all of your comments on this blog on others are very helpful to me. And I hope I can give the same to you! Blessings and Thanks!

  • The sandwich method has worked…start with something good, give them the meat of what they need to work on, and end with a positive (hope for the future). When this fails, I definitely agree with number 4. Great thoughts, Matt!

    • It’s hard to argue with the sandwich method, but I have and I will. I’ll be writing about why…and my feedback method that I stole from some great leaders.

      • I think we’ve started this conversation before. I look forward to reading about your feedback method (or about the one you stole).

        • I think you are right…you were in on that discussion on Joe LaLonde’s blog I believe :)