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The Silent Dropkick

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Confrontation is central to company performance, just don't be confrontational about it.

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While touring Hearst Castle near San Simeon, California, the tour guide explained to my group that William Randolph Hearst sat in the center of his long, grand dining hall table when he entertained guests. In the chilly coastal climate there was often a roaring fire in the enormous stone fireplace at one end of the room, and it nearly singed the occupants seated at that end of the table.

If you were a newly arrived guest or someone Hearst enjoyed spending time with, you sat next to, across from or otherwise near him. As people began to bore him or overstay their welcome, the tour guide went on, they found themselves seated farther from their host and closer to the fireplace. By the time guests' scalps and clothing started to smolder in the insufferable heat, even the most dim-witted among them figured out it was time to pack their bags and leave.

Sequitur: A curious Minyanville reader responded to my March 25th column, Is Your Boss an Idiot?, by asking an insightful question:

"What about the boss that's a pansy? I have a boss that won't fight for anything. I realize that he may be in his position for this reason. Unfortunately, this is the second in a row just like this. What gives?"

A brilliant question and deduction rolled into one. Correctomundo, your bosses (two in a row and more to follow) are probably in the positions they occupy precisely because they don't disrupt the organization's culture. In saccharinely polite corporate cultures, open displays of confrontation -- no matter how professionally intended and executed, potentially helpful or necessary for organizational effectiveness and productivity -- can threaten to expose executives who are fundamentally incompetent when it comes to doing what they are often being paid obscene amounts of money to do.

Competent people are usually confident people and welcome open and challenging dialogue. In fact, they encourage, recognize and reward it. You typically find such gems peppered among the leadership ranks of organizations, but their long-term survival in senior management depends on their diplomacy and discretionary skill at not threatening their insecure colleagues. Every one of us works in a culture that either builds competence through teaching and practicing constructive confrontation, or institutionalizes incompetence by not allowing people or issues to be challenged.

But just because an executive refuses to put on the gloves and fight a good and fair fight over critical issues threatening the company doesn't mean that he or she won't fight you. Threatened executives in nauseatingly polite organizational cultures will take you down if you keep challenging them. Count on it. They won't come out and confront you. They'll smile and be exceedingly polite, which is itself a red flag. When your name comes up in conversation outside of your presence -- conversations about your future with the firm -- they grimace and shake their heads in silence, sending a message that is anything but silent.

Call your friends who work for Bank of America (BAC), Boeing (BA), Ford Motor Company (F), General Motors (GM), IBM (IBM), Nike (NKE), Starbucks (SBUX) and Google (GOOG). Ask them if they work in a polite culture or if they're free to confront important issues openly and constructively. You'll get some eye-opening answers. The higher-performing companies on your list will most likely be those that not only allow, but embrace, constructive confrontation, as long as it remains fair, strategically appropriate and mutually benefits the mothership and the crew.

Don't think because your boss won't fight out in the open the way you want doesn't mean that he or she isn't surgically carving you up in meetings to which you were not invited and behind doors through which you have no access. If you feel your scalp and clothing starting to smolder every time you sit down to break bread with the brass, your place card is moving toward the inferno. It's time to dial back your challenges and find a softer, gentler, dare I say, more polite way to get your message across, because your professional future is losing heat in the executive suite.

To be effective in any organization, you must communicate with cultural consistency. That doesn't mean selling out your principles; it means becoming a skilled and savvy strategist. Don't assume your boss won't fight for what's important. Your boss sure as hell will fight for whatever he or she deems important. A caveat: Find out what your boss deems important or you'll become a casualty before you discover you're in a combat zone.

Learn the rules of engagement for the organization in which you work, not just the espoused, mission statement type hype. Pay attention to who moves up and who gets moved out. Follow the money and study the historical artifacts. As our bright Minyanville reader socratically illustrated, there is usually enough evidence lying around to answer your own question.

Dr. John Hoover, Minyanville professor and scribe of How to Work for an Idiot: Survive & Thrive Without Killing Your Boss, is a leadership coach, consultant and author on staff at Partners in Human Resources International.

No positions in stocks mentioned.

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