Each time I give a keynote about my book, The Good Fight, I’m amazed at how open audiences are to my message about the importance of productive conflict. The best part of giving the speech for me is hearing the wonderful questions people ask as they wrestle with this advice that runs so contrary to conventional wisdom. One of the questions I hear frequently is, “But Liane, shouldn’t you pick your battles?”

Pick Your Battles

Pick your battles is such a common expression when it comes to conflict in the workplace (and everywhere else, for that matter). On the surface, picking your battles makes a ton of sense (if you’re a history buff like me, you know that many a fallen general picked too many battles at once).

I agree that it’s not a good approach it to create a fracas about every little thing. First, because it would be exhausting to be in arguing mode all the time; and second, because it would slow things down too much! For those and other reasons, I would be firmly in the pick your battles camp. Except…

Except I see so many people claiming that they are “picking their battles” when really they’re just fighting an underground guerilla war against the idea. That’s a problem.

When You Choose to Stand Down from a Battle

Let’s start with the positive scenarios first. There are certainly good reasons and appropriate situations to choose not to fight. Here are a few:

  • woman shrugging

    If you can let it go, it’s fine to stand down

    You don’t have any evidence to back up your claim and fighting would only be opining on a situation you don’t fully understand. You’re satisfied that the justification for the plan is sufficient and you zip it.

  • It’s an issue that you genuinely don’t have a big role in. You’re comfortable letting those with more at stake make the call.
  • You’re in support of what the person is planning and differ only in how they’re going about it. You’re content to leave “each to his/her own.”

What these situations have in common is that you’ve made up your mind to move on without clutching onto your original position. Put more bluntly, these are all situations where you carry on without holding a grudge, fostering resentment, or surreptitiously undermining the person you disagreed with.

If you can be satisfied with the ultimate decision, it is absolutely fine to choose not to fight that battle.

That’s where the hard part comes in; being honest with yourself about whether you are choosing to let something go or rather, choosing to harbor a grudge.

If you choose the latter and pack the disagreement into your “baggage,” it will taint every conversation you have from that point on. That’s because your brain is not very good at being objective. Grudges taint communications.

For example, imagine a colleague with whom you fundamentally disagree about which way to go on a project. You choose not to raise your concerns because:

a) the person is more powerful than you; or

b) they have a propensity to yell when you disagree with them; or

c) your moon was in retrograde that day.

Now, that fickle brain of yours will interpret your future interactions differently because you’re still carrying that grudge. When the person asks you to do a task as part of the project, you’ll hear an edge in their voice (that no one else hears). In reading their emails, you won’t read with your regular friendly narrator, noooo… the narrator for their emails will be one part Darth Vader and one part Freddy Krueger. You’ll interpret even the most neutral interactions as adversarial. That’s the cost of holding a grudge. (In my book, You First, I call this the mother-in-law effect because the exact same words from your mother versus your mother-in-law will create a completely different reaction.)

So, next time your conflict-avoidant inner voice tells you to pick your battles, don’t give in so easily. Ask yourself whether you’re just getting into conflict debt. This week, find one moment where you were about to capitulate when you should have stood your ground. In that moment:

  • Ask for evidence to validate the facts the person is sharing, “What are you basing that on?”
  • Shed light from a different angle, “I agree that the plan is x, how could we make it more y?”
  • View the problem from a different perspective, “How would this play with our suppliers?”
  • Identify alternate scenarios, “How would the plan change if we weren’t first to market?”
  • Clarify terms, “What do you mean when you say consequences?”
  • Probe about the impact of the decision, “What will this do to our production schedule in the back-to-school busy season?”
  • Surface tensions, “I suspect I’m interpreting this differently than you. Can we take another pass at what we’re agreeing to?”
  • Highlight assumptions, “This seems to depend on how this plays out in the pharmaceutical division. What assumptions are we making?”

When you have a concern that will limit your ability to get on board with a decision, don’t choose to stand down. Instead, use a productive conflict technique like those above to expose any issues and ensure you’ve done your best to contribute to a good decision. If it’s not your decision to make, then once you’ve said your piece, make your peace.

Further Reading

Disagree with your boss without getting fired

Why you owe it to your teammates to disagree with them

4 secrets of avoiding the conflict spiral