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The Best Strategies for Picking Your Battles at Work
Which conflicts to pursue and which ones to drop
A couple months ago, I received an email from a public relations assistant with embargoed news that, as a tech reporter, I was excited to cover. But as I was working to schedule the relevant interviews, I received a Google alert that the news had already gone out — a full week before the embargo date she gave me.
Furious, I Slacked my boss and spent the next several minutes describing the passive-aggressive email I was planning to send to my PR contact. She listened to me vent and, when I was done, instructed me to let the whole thing go. “Pick your battles,” she said.
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but begrudgingly, I knew she was right. The relationship with this PR person, in the long run, was more important than my frustration in the moment. I didn’t send the email. Shortly after my venting session, the PR person sent over an apology, explaining that she’d gotten the date wrong.
I’ve put the incident behind me, but in the time that’s elapsed since then, I’ve been turning my boss’ advice around in my mind, trying to understand it a little better. We’re often told to pick our battles, to carefully choose the conflicts we pursue. And with good reason: Employees in the United States spend an estimated 2.8 hours each week dealing with conflict at work, adding up to more than $350 billion in lost productivity each year.
“We say ‘pick your battles’ because we’re social creatures,” says clinical psychologist Lara Fielding, author of the book Mastering Adulthood. “In any interaction, whether it’s a workplace interaction or romantic interaction, when you don’t have a good working relationship, it’s very hard to get anything done.” Letting arguments drop, then, isn’t just a way to keep the peace; it’s a way to make sure you’re spending your time wisely. But how should we go about picking our battles?
Focus on Results
Writer Amy E. Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict and several other books on workplace dynamics, says that the key to approaching any workplace conflict is to do it with an outcome in mind.
“There’s a big difference between being someone who’s known for complaining about things and someone who’s known for changing things,” she says, and the line between constructive criticism and a whine can be thin. “You want to be careful when you’re deciding whether to take action on something that’s bothering you, whether you’re doing it in a way that makes you seem like you constantly complain or just have a negative attitude in general.”
Fielding agrees. “If you’ve complained too much, then when you really need to complain, people are sort of habituated to the whining,” she says. “They’ve learned to tune you out.”
To avoid getting a reputation as a habitual complainer, start by weighing the pros and cons of speaking up about your issue. What are the potential risks of doing it for all parties involved? What are the benefits? What’s the probability of succeeding in getting your complaint resolved?
Another thing to consider: Is this someone else’s battle? Try to avoid getting involved in other people’s business and wasting your limited capital on something you’re not passionate about.
“There’s a big difference between being someone who’s known for complaining about things and someone who’s known for changing things.”
No matter what the conflict, you’ll be less effective at handling it if you barge ahead without having all the relevant information. Take the time to breathe and get a handle on your feelings before taking any action. Ask yourself if you’re in control of the situation and if you know everything you need to know — including who to approach about whatever’s bothering you.
“Would you rather be right or be effective?” Fielding says. “You can be right sometimes, but you shoot yourself in the foot by going after it at the wrong time to the wrong person in the wrong way.”
It’s also worth considering whether you have the power to make a change on your own. As an example, Gallo points to a time when a close friend was upset about the vacation policy of her employer, a large university, which was dictated by an HR department that she rarely interacted with.
“Could she spend time researching what other universities do in terms of vacation? Could she get a few people from different departments involved? Sure. But is that really the best use of her time?” Gallo says. She suggests thinking about the true scope of your job duties and being aware of your place and authority within your organization.
“If you don’t have the authority, it’s not part of your job responsibility. Find the person whose job it is, and talk to them about your options,” Gallo says. That key person can help provide more insights into your battle and help you decide whether it’s worth pursuing.
Weigh the Alternatives
Once you have more information, consider the other side of the argument. What happens if you stay silent?
“When we have to do difficult things, we tend to overweight the risks of taking action, and we don’t often think about the risks of not taking action,” Gallo says. “So, if you chose not to speak up about this, what would be the consequences?”
If you decide this particular battle is worth it, Fielding recommends using something called the VAR method for approaching conflict. It stands for validate, assert, and reinforce: Validate the difficulty of the issue from the other side’s perspective, assert your problem and solution clearly, and reinforce or reward whoever’s helping you.
On that last point, it always helps to have another party on your side. Bring others along by saying what’s in it for them, Fielding says, and ask them what they would do if they were in your shoes to encourage empathy and more in-depth feedback. “I know this seems mercenary or transactional in some ways,” she says, “but it works,” and everyone who has a stake in the issue is better served if you can make a more effective case — which is more easily done with more voices.
“If this is something that affects a broader group of people, you’re more likely to get the ears of more senior folks, as well as being able to enlist allies and make a change,” Gallo says.
If the argument gets heated, back down. And again, remember your sense of place. Listen to what others have to say without talking over them to earn the respect of the room.
If you hit a dead end, you can always reassess at any point whether it’s still worth your time and effort to continue or if you want to preserve your resources for something that will allow you to make a more lasting impact. Fighting every battle can be exhausting, mentally and physically, and while standing down may feel unnatural, sometimes it’s the best decision you can make for yourself, your productivity, and your relationships within the workplace. “If it’s out of your control, it’s out of your control,” Gallo says. And learning when to just let it go is a skill in and of itself.