Learn How To Pick Your Office Battles

This is a guest post by Alan Chatfield from the Life's Too Good blog

Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.” ~ Jonothan Kozol


In the complex & fast paced modern corporate world, conflict is pretty much an inevitability.  So perhaps it's more useful instead of looking at how to avoid conflict, looking at how you deal with conflict situations.  If we accept that conflict is going to come your way during your career, then knowing how and when to react could prove invaluable.

A Gladiator Or The Nicest Guy On The Planet?

You guessed it … neither.

If you fight your corner every time you encounter conflict, this could be extremely draining on you in terms of your energy levels and workload, furthermore it could have damaging repercussions to your career.

If you give in every single time at the first sign of conflict, that perhaps is not the best option either as you may become known as a push-over, you may get on with your colleagues but will probably struggle to advance quickly through the ranks of management (if that's what you want to do).

So knowing when and how to react can be very useful indeed.

Case Study – The badly behaved Project Manager

As a relatively young project manager, I had a fairly rocky relationship with another project manager who I often came up against in conflict situations. This was mainly due to our respective projects having conflicts rather than anything personal. Unfortunately this often became something a little more personal than it should as we were both (in hindsight) too close to our projects and lacking in objectivity. We both wanted our own projects to succeed and ended up fighting each other on several occasions when the projects competed for resources, had dependencies on each other or in any number of other situations where the proximity of our projects meant we had to work together to try and find compromises.

The other project manager, let's call him Dave, was older than me and quite quick-witted.  He was extremely good at having answers for everything and a lot of arguments with Dave were quite difficult as he was very adept at coming up with very logical sounding reasons why I or my project should accommodate him/his and not the other way around. He was also very good at being quite loud and embarrassing others in meetings. Knowing this, and actually getting on quite well with Dave away from work (or even at work whenever we didn't have to work closely together), I was able to avoid any big conflicts but I always had to be very careful around Dave.  After one meeting where he swore a lot at another project manager and behaved in a rather unruly manner, I asked him quietly if he didn't think he was being a little over the top in the meeting and how he got away with it. Dave laughed it off and told me that he basically knew how to pick his battles.

I wouldn't say that Dave was an absolute master at picking his battles because he did get in a little bother later on in his career, but he at least knew the concept of picking his battles.  He knew enough to try and think about when and how to react to different situations – i.e. that it was not in every meeting that it was appropriate to shoot his mouth off, put people on the spot and challenge or embarrass others. In more senior management meetings he certainly tended to keep quite schtumm.

Picking your battles is not just about conserving your energy, it is also about avoiding building yourself the wrong kind of reputation and about a certain degree of stakeholder management.

In the example above, the project manager, Dave, could afford to be aggressive in that particular meeting because of his position relative to other attendees in the room. If someone  more senior had been introduced into the meeting, his behaviour would have been quite different.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

In the corporate environment having a good sense for when to make a stand and when to be congenial is a very very valuable skill to have indeed. This is because others observe and are influenced by your behaviour. Especially in the extremes. If you have a really big argument with someone in front of others, chances are this will be gossiped about. If you are generally very diplomatic and downplay everything almost all of the time, then a small reaction may carry a lot of weight purely because the people who know you would be expecting no reaction at all.

Final Thoughts

It is up to your judgement in relation to your working environment to decide when and how to react, but think about who is in the room, think about what you have to gain by reacting in different ways to different types of conflict  Think about who your key stakeholders are and even if they are not there, is there anyone there who might talk to them? What do you want them to feed back?

Stay in control of your reactions and pick your battles.

If you do lose control, at least be sensible enough to make it at a time where it won't be a career limiting decision…

You can find Alan at Life’s Too Good, a blog about helping you get more out of your life and your business. Alan is also a writer and you can actually watch him write his latest book, ‘Lessons From The City’ at a new site he just created: www.lessonsfromthecity.com. Follow Alan on twitter at @LTGMonkey.

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CEO at 3Bug Media
Gary Shouldis is the founder of 3Bug Media, a web marketing company that helps businesses create 360 Marketing Strategies to dominate their market. His blog is read by over 20 thousand small business owners a month and has been featured in the N.Y. Times Small Business, Business Insider and Yahoo Small Business.
4 replies
  1. Jillian
    Jillian says:

    Nice article, I have a gentleman in my office who is always looking for a fight whenever you challenge his ideas, I don’t want to start an argument with him, but sometimes I feel like I should be standing my ground more. What do you do with an overly aggressive co-worker?

  2. Alan | Life's Too Good
    Alan | Life's Too Good says:

    Hi Jillian,

    often less is more when you have strong characters. Some thoughtful responses can be really powerful.

    Overly aggressive sounds like it may be beyond business conflict though and if the guy is actually being a bully then you should know that there is a line he must not cross before we are talking about something different altogether.

    So it depends upon the finer details when it’s to do with particularly aggressive characters.

    If that’s the case and you want more advice on the issue, follow the 3 steps at the bottom of this article and if I can help you, I will.

    thanks for the comment,

  3. Crystal Joyce
    Crystal Joyce says:

    I have one person in my office that tries to get their way by being a total ass when someone challenges their ideas…..too bad it’s my boss

  4. Alan
    Alan says:

    Hi Crystal,

    no idea why I didn’t see this comment earlier and I hope you still get this reply (better late than never).

    First of all, thanks for the comment and I do empathize with your situation.

    There are ways of dealing with this even when it’s your boss & the way to do so depends very much on the reasons your boss is acting like a total ass – e.g. it could be insecurity/imposter syndrome, they could just be a very ‘red’, driven type of personality or there could be other reasons (such as reacting badly with certain people but not with others etc).

    One way to soften when you want to challenge an idea put forward by your boss would be to ask a question where possible as opposed to any kind of statement or more ‘direct’ challenge (if you’re not doing that already) – that gives the boss a chance to keep some authority & ownership by getting to ‘OK’ any alternative ideas put forward (and may even end up thinking it was also his/her idea).

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