Choosing Your Battles at Work

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You spend nearly a quarter of your life in the office, interacting with coworkers, dealing with company policy, and meeting with your superiors. There are bound to be conflicts that get under your skin, frustrate you, or even impact your productivity. The key is to know when to speak up, when to let something go, and when to push for a resolution. 

Let’s take a closer look at how to tackle challenging situations with work colleagues and superiors and how to balance action and inaction for the best possible outcomes. 

Identifying and Responding to Conflict

Conflict is relative. Certain things are perfectly normal for one person, but can be incredibly obnoxious or distracting for someone else. That doesn’t make your feelings any less relevant, but it’s important to remember when determining which battles to fight. 

You have a limited amount of capital with which to act. If you start complaining about everything that bothers you at work, you’ll find a less than enthusiastic response from your coworkers, superiors, and HR team. You’ll need to not only identify which problems are significant enough to warrant action, but also determine the priority in which to tackle them. Delivering a laundry list of concerns to your boss likely won’t go over well. Some things to consider before you act include:

  • Your Relative Ability to Create Change – Your role in the company is important, but so too is the level of respect others have for you. If you’re perceived as a go-getter that everyone likes and who helps others out whenever you can, you’ll have far more leverage than if you’re relatively low on the totem pole and rarely interact with others. 
  • Do You Have a Solution? – No matter how impactful a problem is, never broach an issue (unless it’s a serious infraction) without at least some ideas for resolution. Bringing potential solutions to the table, alongside your concerns, can help prevent you from being labeled as “just another complainer.” 
  • Collaborate with Others – Before you put yourself on the line and confront someone about your concerns, discuss them with others you trust. Colleagues, friends, or family can help provide insights on whether you are justified in your concern and if your potential solutions are reasonable. 

Addressing Conflict on Your Team

Conflict on your team can come in the form of personal issues related to a clash of personalities, invasions of space, or general communications concerns, or they can be professional in nature. How you address these issues will vary depending on all of these factors. To effectively address conflict with someone on your team, consider the following:

  • Identify the nature of your concern. Does it impact the organization, or is it a personal or culture-related concern that should be addressed one-on-one? 
  • What is your current relationship with this colleague? Do you have a good rapport that can support a direct conversation about a potential issue, or is it already antagonistic to a degree? 
  • Does the current issue impact your productivity in a way that will be important to your superiors? 

If the answers to these questions indicate that a confrontation will be productive, schedule a meeting with them to air your concerns. If you feel the conversation will create unnecessary tension, consider first developing your action plan and discussing it with your direct superior in order to determine any additional steps that you might want to take – potentially formalizing a meeting with all three of you. 

Remember, though, that for this to be an effective discussion, you should be:

  • Clear about your concerns and how they impact not just you, but the organization as a whole. 
  • Ready to present a solution or action plan for resolving the issue. Don’t just tell someone they have a problem and they need to fix it. 
  • Open about how it impacts you and your willingness to help in effecting change. 

Addressing Conflict with a Superior 

A conflict that involves your superior can be more stressful to address. Not only is this someone that you turn to when you have outside concerns, but there can also be a fear of reprisal if the issue is not handled carefully. Fortunately, most of these issues are organizational in nature and relate to specific challenges you are having with your job, the company, or the manner in which the company handles certain processes. For this reason, it should always be possible to reframe your concerns in a way that speaks to those in management. Keep in mind:

  • You should always articulate the issue in terms of how it impacts your job, the people around you, or the performance of the company. 
  • Again, always come to a meeting with a solution in hand. Especially when addressing systemic or management-related concerns, be clear about how you think the issue could be resolved. Don’t rely on your boss to fix issues for you. Be ready to step up with suggestions for a solution.  
  • Take time to share your concerns with colleagues, both in and out of the company, in order to determine how best to frame the conversation. If your boss is sensitive to certain issues, spend time crafting your message in a way that he or she will respond to positively. 

It’s easy to go into a meeting with your boss with a list of concerns and expect changes to be made. Unfortunately, most managers receive several such lists every week, and they have to prioritize where changes are made. By carefully calculating when to have such conversations, arriving with potential solutions in hand, and being willing to compromise and work together in finding a solution, you can break through the noise and make sure your voice is heard. 

Coping with the Fallout of Confrontation (or a Lack Thereof)

Finally, ask yourself how you’ll process the results of your actions. If you choose not to confront someone, could you still perform your job at the expected level? If the issue is so distracting or frustrating that it impacts your performance, consider whether letting an issue go is really the best solution. 

On the other side, if you confront someone that you will need to work with going forward, consider whether it will create unnecessary tension in the workplace that subsequently causes productivity to decline.

However you feel right now, there will be consequences to your actions that you need to take into consideration before making a decision about what to do. With the right action plan and an idea of how those around you will respond, you should be able to act accordingly and create change in your workplace.

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