"For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the supreme of excellence. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence." Sun Tzu- The Art of War.
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There have been countless movies made where the hero stands up against authority and fights for their idea or vision. It's a great story. A person sees something they don't like, fights against immeasurable odds, and comes out the hero at the end by changing the world around them. We walk away with the message that fighting to get our way is the valiant way. If we want to get ahead, we need to fight and claw for every inch to assert our opinion on the world. If we don't fight, we are weak and unassertive.
Although this might make a good movie, I believe that it sets a terrible example for behavior in the workplace. I believe that fighting and conflict in the workplace should be a very rare thing, and exhibiting this behavior can often be a damaging quality. In rare circumstances going to battle is necessary, but most of the time conflict is avoidable and counterproductive. "Fighting the good fight" too often damages credibility, making it difficult to know when something really is important enough to fight for.
Here's a quick example. I recently heard the story of a manager who "went to war" with his boss over a change to his future strategic product plan. The boss and upper management wanted to change the plan to focus on the needs of a small set of important customers. The manager, who had spent a lot of time on the plan, felt that the group should stay focused on creating a more general product to meet the needs of the mass market. The manager voiced his opinion vehemently, as he often did. When he didn't get his way, he took his case to upper management. He also told anyone who would listen that he was right and his boss was wrong. After a number of incidents like this, the manager was labeled as argumentative, and was eventually removed from his position.
So at least he fought the good fight, right? Wrong. The products that they were talking about are for DEVELOPMENT IN 2013! The market that this company participates in is very dynamic, so the chances of either strategic product plan being executed as specified were very slim. There were much more productive ways to resolve this conflict over time. When you look deep down, this was really just a fight about who was right, not about anything substantial. The conflict was fought out of anger, hurt feelings, and ego, and it cost this manager his job.
Choosing Your Battles
Before we decide when to have a battle, let's define "battle". Webster defines battle as "an extended contest, struggle, or controversy." In the workplace, a battle needs to have opposing opinions between people with similar authority. Obviously, if everyone agrees it's not a battle. Also, if the CEO sets the start time at 8:00am and a front line employee wants to start at 10:00am, it's not much of a battle. But a controversy between two employees about how to best service a customer might certainly qualify.
When faced with conflict, the choice is fight or flight. Fighting means to fully engage in the conflict, and take it all the way to conclusion. Flight means that you will choose some other way to resolve the conflict (i.e. negotiation, critical discussion) or give in and accept that things are not going your way. You usually have a decision about which path to take in any conflict.
So how do you decide when to fight? The questions that I suggest you ask yourself when making this decision are:
- Do I have a goal?
Can I state in one sentence exactly the end result that I want? In the example above, the goal might have been:
Example: I want the strategic plan to say that we will create a mass market product in 2013.
You may find that if you consider your goal up front, it will become clear whether the issue is worth pursuing. If you don't have a goal, then battling probably doesn't make much sense.
- Is this important?
There are two ways that a battle can be important. First, the battle has a significant impact on a tangible, definable business result. For example, this choice will impact our revenue, raise our cost, or impact our customers. Second, the issue violates a principle or value that you believe is important. Examples might be going to battle so that you don't have to be dishonest, or don't have to hurt people, etc. Issues can affect one or both importance factors.
In the example above, this is where the manager started to go wrong. There was no tangible business impact of changing the 2013 strategic plan in this case. Also, there was no moral choice on updating the plan. It was an unimportant argument.
If the manager above would have thought about it, the real reason that he had the conflict was that he wanted to be "right". Being right is not a business concern, and being right is not a value. It was a bad fight to get into.
- Can I win?
If you work at Wal-Mart, and you propose a plan to raise your prices by 25% across the board, chances are you will get laughed out of the room. There are times when winning is not a possibility. In these situations, you have a choice. You can decide that the issue is not big enough to fight, and resolve your situation in other ways. Or, you can fight a losing fight, and prepare yourself for the consequences. The consequences may be slight or may be severe, but at least you went into the fight with eyes open.
The manager above had no shot of winning his fight. His management had already decided how to proceed and what the company strategy should be. Had he thought about the possible outcomes, he may have chosen not to fight.
- What will this cost me?
It's easy to see that losing a battle may be costly. You will have come out on the wrong side of an issue, and people will be looking closely to see how you react. Will you still go along with the plan, or will you cause trouble?
It may not be as easy to see that winning also has costs. You are now going to be tied closely to the result. If you get your way and your idea fails, you are squarely in the spotlight. Also, you may have damaged relationships with opponents along the way who will be looking for opportunities to prove you wrong.
People who choose to be in conflict a lot, even if they win, can find themselves very lonely when they eventually do lose.
In summary, fighting the good fight is necessary on occasion. If an issue meets the criteria above, it certainly can be appropriate to engage in conflict. However, I think this is a rarity, and most things can be solved in other ways. If you are consistent with this, you will find that people will listen to you when you do fight because they will know that it's important to you. However, fighting for the wrong reasons (anger, hurt feelings, personal issues, ego, etc.) can damage your reputation, hurt your career, and make it difficult for you to succeed when something IS worth fighting for.
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