‹ Back to Columns

Lesson #6 - Choose Your Battles

Jean Bye

This column is the sixth of seven installments based on Jean Bye’s 2022 Hoyt Memorial Lecture delivered at CastExpo in Columbus, Ohio.

Some days seem like just one battle after another. Your office just clears out from one crisis and someone walks in with the next, and you know the needed resolution is just not going to be easy.

We all have limited time, energy, and social capital. Every battle takes time and energy. We cannot take on every battle. On the other hand, while many of us would love to, we also cannot sidestep every battle. Some battles are important. How we evaluate and choose our battles can make or break a career.

First, evaluate the problem at a high level. Is it important enough to be dealt with? This analysis needs to include not just is it important enough to you personally but is it important enough to the entire team? Is it making someone else’s job more difficult? Is it setting a bad future precedent? Or are you just fighting to win?

If you decide it needs to be fought, does it need to be you? Or is there someone else who is better fit to be handling the issue? Is your time better spent on something else? However, accept that if it needs to be dealt with and you are handing it off to someone else … the solution may be different than yours and that is ok.

In some situations, you can do a cost benefit analysis. Do the costs outweigh the benefit? I’ve found that when doing this you need to think both short and long term. A specific issue with a customer may be only a few hundred dollars and not seem worth the battle. However, depending on the situation it might be (1) setting a future precedent or (2) causing a disruption to others in the team that will distract them from something else that has a cost. Think of the previous column on focus. If you are constantly deflecting your customer service team onto small issues because you aren’t willing to fight the battle with the customer, are those team members able to succeed in their position? Third, avoiding the battle may reinforce a customer’s behavior of picking away at you. Is this an issue to draw a line in the sand even though it is small? Again, when deciding whether to take up the battle, look big picture across the organization and long term relative to the relationship with the other party.

Also important in choosing a battle is to evaluate the chances of success. If they are small, you might be better to let it go.

If you do take up the battle, look for win/wins. Have an open discussion with an honest desire to understand the root needs of the other individual. Sometimes they may have presented a solution instead of their problem and you may be able to find other acceptable solutions.

In thinking of a battle as a negotiation, it is important that you not get angry or personal. Have an exit point; don’t just keep fighting for the sake of the fight. And, if you lose a battle, let go of it. Don’t let it keep coloring future interactions.

Dealing with an underperforming employee is one example of a potential battle. Patience (or not engaging in the battle) can be good—but not too much patience. You need to support and nurture, but you also need to recognize when the chances of getting the employee where they need to be are low and fire the employee. Often in avoiding a battle, we wait and wait and wait, and when we finally do engage, everyone around us is saying, “Why did you wait so long?” They could see that we missed our exit point.

Watching a middle manager stifle conversation or creativity might be another example. We might want to avoid that battle completely. Yet what would the cost be to the organization? That might be a battle worth stepping into because of the impact on the team.

Sometimes we have a parade of pink flags instead of one red flag, so we avoid that battle. It is easy to look at each little thing independently and use that as an excuse to avoid the battle when they are signs of a bigger issue. If we have a customer who will not fix their tooling, do we avoid that battle? If that same customer complains about issues but will not listen to solutions, that is a second pink flag. If they also do not pay bills, you have a third pink flag. When there are enough pink flags you have a red flag, and it is likely a battle to fight.

TAKEAWAY #6 – There is a very important art to picking your battles. It is worth being intentional about your approach.