Stand Your Ground, or Let it Go? How to Pick Your Battles at Work

“Picking your battles” can be tough for anyone, but it’s especially challenging for office ninjas. We are, after all, always right and know the best way to do everything.

All joking aside, when you work hard and have high standards for both your colleagues and yourself, it’s hard to bite your tongue while witnessing a situation that, if it were totally up to you, you’d handle it completely differently. But most of us have bosses and work in teams, which means that sometimes we have to take a step back and go with the flow. While your strong opinions make you an asset, it’s important that others see you as a team player who respects and values ideas other than your own.

Finding the balance between pushover and dictator can be tricky. Here are some thoughts on figuring out when to stand your ground and when to let someone else call the shots.

Battles to Pick

Is it precedent setting or part of a larger issue? Let’s say, for example, that you manage a system for reserving conference rooms. It’s an awesome, no-fail system that works beautifully…as long as everyone follows the reservation protocol. And, for the most part, everyone does. Except Bob. Bob never uses the right form or provides enough notice, which means extra work for you.

It may seem petty, but this is a battle to pick. It’s fine to bail out a Bob-type person the first time they screw up or simply ignore a protocol. But if you let this kind of behavior slide again and again it will affect your overall efficiency and potentially screw up your carefully constructed system. Stop bailing Bob out and tell him he needs to follow the protocol.

You’re the expert. You were hired for a number of reasons, and your skills, background, and expertise are a few of the big ones. You may have been brought on because you’re the only one at your company that has your type of experience or training, which makes it your duty (and, at times, your burden) to be the voice of reason. If you’re the only one championing an unpopular idea, do your best to explain to your colleagues how you got there. But resist the urge to say things like “I’m the only one who actually knows about this,” as that kind of language makes you look defensive. (And it’s obnoxious.)

A situation that’s unethical, damaging to the company, or harmful to customers. This one’s a no-brainer. If your team is aware of a situation that’s just plain wrong and chooses to look the other way or attempts a cover-up, you should absolutely stand your ground and seek back-up from a more senior manager.

When to Let it Go

It’s your chance to “throw someone a bone.” Is there a colleague with whom you always butt heads? The next time you come up against a disagreement with fairly low stakes (e.g. which vendor to use for the staff lunch, what to name your kickball team at the office picnic) take the opportunity to acquiesce. You’ll help build or repair good will and you’ll save a “battle” for when it really counts.

It doesn’t affect or involve you. With the growing trend of open office spaces and less clearly defined structure and hierarchy, it can be easy to get pulled into discussions and arguments that don’t really impact your work. You may find other aspects of the business interesting, but you have a finite amount of time for your job. If a time-consuming battle isn’t directly tied to your role, step away and let someone else fight the good fight.

You’ve made your point and you’re still outnumbered. Sometimes you can have all the fact-based, well-researched reasons for why your idea is the best one and still be voted down by the powers that be. It’s frustrating, but shutting down, throwing a tantrum, or pouting won’t do you or your teammates any good. Take the opportunity to show your professionalism and grace by accepting the situation and quickly getting on board.

As a general rule, it’s important to know exactly why you’re choosing to pick a battle. It can be easy to slip into patterns when it comes pushing back or giving in. So, the next time you find yourself bristling at work, ask yourself if this is your battle to pick and if the energy it requires is truly worth your time.

How do you go about picking your workplace battles?

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  1. Loved this! I feel like sometimes in an “office ninja” position its easy to just say yes or agree to everything…Especially in the tech industry where most company cultures are super indulgent. I think one thing that helps me and my team is knowing that everyone has an opinion and sometimes you’re not gonna make everyone happy, but as long as you’re staying true to the values of the company everything works out.

    1. Totally agree. When in doubt, use the company’s core values as your compass. Thanks so much for your comment!