In a world of disruption and constant change, where ambiguity is the norm, we actively drive
conversations as thought leaders across multiple industries to generate insights that lead to
pragmatic outcomes.

Leadership Moments

To Be More Comfortable with Conflict, You Need “Bone-Deep Confidence.”​

January 23, 2019


To Be More Comfortable with Conflict, You Need “Bone-Deep Confidence.”​

Ever since I heard the phrase “bone-deep confidence” from my Merryck & Co. colleague Barbara Khouri, it has stayed with me as a great way to capture that rare quality you see in some people – a quiet confidence born of self-awareness and humility. In this interview, you’ll find many gems of wisdom from her years as a business leader, and now as a mentor to senior executives in our work at Merryck.

Q. What are the themes that come up most often with the senior executives you’re advising?

A. What I’ve seen most is the degree to which personal issues and behaviors drive who and what these people are in business. You can’t separate it out. It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and it really has to be addressed because it affects what they do in business and how they feel about themselves.

Q. How do those personal issues show up?

A. Sometimes it can manifest as a lack of confidence or arrogance, and arrogance is also an emotion born of insecurity. So I’ll ask them, “Why aren’t you developing the best people you can on your team? Why don’t you have the courage to step up and say, this is the way it should be?”

There is a lot of conflict avoidance. So many people — because of their insecurities, because they want to be liked, and because they’re not sure how they’ll be received — will avoid making critical decisions on a timely basis because they don’t want to know what the ramifications might be.

“When I read a business plan, I want to know the story, and I want it short and with bullet points.”

People often do a version of conflict avoidance with their businesses, too. When I read a business plan, I want to know the story, and I want it short and with bullet points. I’m looking for their true understanding of the issues. Sometimes they can block things out of their mind because they don’t know how to deal with them or they’re afraid to deal with them or they just don’t see it. Those are the kinds of things I’ll bring up. If I hear someone say, “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it,” I’ll jump on that immediately and start asking what-if questions.

Q. Most everyone struggles with time management. Does that come up?

A. Everybody is busy, but when I start asking about their executive teams, I might ask, “Why don’t you give this to Joan or John?” If they answer, “Oh no, I’ve got to do this myself,” then that will lead to another discussion. Why aren’t they delegating? If the team isn’t up to it, what’s being done to develop them? There will be a progression where they run out of arguments about why they can’t or haven’t handed off some of their work to someone else.

Then we look at calendars, and I will start asking if they really have to be in all the meetings on their calendar. Sometimes, they feel like they need to be at the meetings to be seen, or it’s an ego issue. You’ve got to find out what’s really driving it.

Q. You seem comfortable with having tough conversations.

A. I was blessed with my parents. I’m an only child. My parents absolutely adored me. They just wanted the best for me. That’s a very secure position to come from. I’ve never been intimidated by anybody, and I’ve never felt insecure around anybody.

I’m very self-aware, or at least try to be. I have no problem with saying, “I blew it, I’m really sorry, that was dumb, I can’t believe I did that.” A lot of people won’t or can’t do that. You have to have what I call bone-deep self-confidence. And with that comes humility.

Another thing that was defining for me was that after I’d been in corporate life for a while, I became known as a turnaround person. You’ve got to use humor. You’ve got to know what the critical issues are. You’ve got to have self-confidence. You’ve got to motivate employees and get them to want them to work there because you could be closing the doors tomorrow.

Q. You liked the turnaround work?

A. I did, and I don’t know why. It was so stressful and so lonely. Maybe being an only child and having such supportive parents helped me through that because I could keep my own counsel. You also have to make decisions very quickly in a turnaround. That’s why I think I have so little tolerance for people who say, “I’m so busy.” Nobody’s busier than someone who’s running a turnaround.

“Everybody should do a turnaround at least once because then you see what time management is all about.”

I also like to fix things. Without being Pollyanna-ish, you have to be as positive as you possibly can, but you also have to be prepared to make the tough decisions. Sometimes I had to make a decision on the spot about firing 20 people. I tell all my clients that everybody should do a turnaround at least once because then you see what time management is all about. You see what making tough decisions is all about. You see what’s really important.

I joined one company, and two days after I started, the private equity firm asked me if I had a business plan. They also told me that they were hiring an outside group to shut down a plant. And I said, “Am I the CEO of this company? Then I’m going to do it.” There were 300 people in this particular plant, and I introduced myself to all of them.

“You don’t know me,” I said to them, “but I think you can understand why I’m here. I am so sorry, so genuinely sorry. I don’t know what to say but, there’s nothing we can do.” Each one of them either came up and hugged me or shook my hand and went back to work.

Q. The point is you showed up, and a lot of people don’t in moments like that.

A. Being genuine is important. The PE firm that owned the plant was going to give these workers a pittance for severance, and I said no, that’s not acceptable. You are not going to do that. I got them a lot more money. What happened to the business wasn’t their fault. They did their jobs.

Q. What is your favorite job interview question when you’re hiring people?

A. What would you do to make this company better and special? When I ask that question, I almost want to see the wheels turning and them thinking about what could be done. I don’t need them to be specific because they don’t know the company that well, but I want to hear their ideas about how to make a difference.

Follow Adam Bryant and Merryck & Co on LinkedIn to see more.