How to Pick Your Battles at Work (Without Burning Bridges)

Working for a nonprofit organization, you learn how to pick and choose your battles.

There are the small ones, like deciding if you should say something to your teammate about their less-than-stellar proofreading. Or sending that email about keeping the office microwave clean!

But as you get further in your career, bigger battles fall onto your lap. You might find yourself convincing your org to implement new system, proposing a shift in how your org executes its mission, or even moral conversations around diversity and ethics.

Basically, the sky’s the limit when it comes to opportunities you’ll have to speak up in your career.

And it’s not easy! Because just like with learning to say no, it takes careful thought and maneuvering to take a professional stand of any kind. But some battles are worth the risk. and it’s on us to identify those moments.

If you stop here and get nothing else from this post, I want to leave you with these 4 truths:

1. Being right doesn’t make every battle worth it.

The righteous path isn’t always the most effective, productive, or self-care friendly. Remember that.

2. You are not your org’s savior.

It is not your job to create lasting change overnight, unless you’re the ED – and even then, you shouldn’t be doing that all alone.

3. Right is right, but timing matters.

For stances of greater moral or ethical importance, it can be tempting to decide that the timing shouldn’t matter. But it does, at least in terms of seeing any change at your organization.

That doesn’t mean the timing will ever be completely “right” though. That’s not how nonprofit time works.

4. You can be on the right side of an argument and still be wrong in your approach.

How you do things matters, almost as much as what you’re trying to do. So when you hear yourself getting dismissive, insistent, or even rude, take a step back.

Before you walk into that big meeting, principles blazing (!!), take a moment and ask yourself these 3 critical questions:

How to Pick Those Nonprofit Battles: 3 Questions You Need to Ask Yourself

Question #1: Is this a battle you really want to wage?

Don’t take this question as discouragement! Emotions & situations just have this funny way of convincing us that something is a good idea in the heat of the moment. Even if it’s not.

What you need to do is figure out if the way you feel right now is going to be the way you feel 3 minutes/weeks/years from now, too.

And while you’re reflecting on this question, consider these factors:

A. Your position at the org

This affects the amount of say & sway that you have. That’s not to say you should’t make your case, but you need to know this beforehand – because it impacts how you prepare and how this gets received by everyone else.

*BTW:* Your “position” isnt’ just about title or seniority. It’s about how your staff sees you. You’re going to have an easier time making your case if you’re known to be trustworthy or reliable (vs someone who is irresponsible or inconsistent)!

B. The likelihood you’ll make an impact.

Your position is one half of the equation. The other is the way your org operates.

Do you work in a place that is open and receptive to the type of feedback you’re about to dish out? Or are you opening up a can of worms that’s bound to be met with resistance? If it’s the latter, don’t abandon hope. Just think realistically about what you’re working with, what the likelihood is that you’ll effect change, and decide if you’re okay with those odds.

C. Your ratio of gains to losses.

Every professional stand you take comes with a set of potential gains & consequences. Some battles are worth those risks, but others aren’t…and you don’t want to act on those not-worth-it ones if you can catch them in advance. Right?

Yes, even if your stand is something that feels small, same rules apply.

To determine if this is the right battle, look at your gains/losses ratio! If the benefits of your best-case scenario outweigh the consequences of your worst, then you’ve got something here.

Question #2: Is this a battle you’re prepared to wage?

You’ve got your conviction. Now, have you done your homework?

If you’re going to use precious career capital to make a case for your org, then you’d better be prepared. Consider the following:

A. Your knowledge on the issue

How much do you know about the topic that you’re taking a stand on? Put yourself in a staff member’s shoes: if you were hearing this pitch from someone else on staff with your knowledge on the subject, would you feel convinced by their proposal?

If that answer is no, get to researching.

B. Your ability to articulate the problem

Introvert-me hates to admit this, but here it is. The way you present information is often just as important as what you’re saying.

It is NERVE-WRACKING to make the case for something you believe in, especially when your audience has more experience or interpersonal bravado. But remember, you’re putting your neck on the line to convince staff that this “thing” is something you need! You owe it to yourself to give that idea the best platform it can have. That means planning in advance for what you’re going to say and how.

C. Your willingness to defend the solution.

You can have the smartest idea in the world, and someone will always be there to resist it. Even though sticking to your guns (is that the phrase?) can be uncomfortable, you’ll have an easier time with it if you anticipate some of those questions and challenges in advance.

Have responses ready for any objections you might encounter once your idea is officially out there. You’ll look and feel more prepared (and it might even assure some of those naysayers.)

D. Your supporters

Is this something that other staff want? Do you have reason to think you’ll gain significant support on this idea? As people say, there’s power in numbers.

Question #3:  Is this a battle you’re prepared to lose?

For most of us bringing a big idea to the table,  we spend enough time imagining that best case scenario.

But what if it’s your worst case scenario that comes to life? What if your org just says no?

If your stand gets shut down, you ultimately have to accept that outcome. And by ‘accept’, here’s what I mean:

A. You can’t continue to push.

You’ll only drive staff further away from your idea, which could do more harm than good – especially if their decision is only an issue of timing.

That doesn’t mean you have to give up entirely. Just let things lie for a little while.

B. You need to go along with whatever’s decided.

I understand the frustration of projects getting turned down, or feeling that your org is stunting itself due to the way leaders make decisions.

But that doesn’t give anyone the right to act against whatever course has been decided. Even the smallest acts of spite or sabotage play against the larger work of a whole. It’s really bad form, unethical, and guaranteed to come back to bite you.

C. If you can’t go along, then it may be time for a change.

I have yet to tackle them myself, but I know some stands are worth forfeiting a job over. (But NOT MANY. Only the big moral issues, or those that directly impact your working health. Consider that your disclaimer!)

If you’ve gotten shut down and just can’t get onboard…you might want to start looking for your next gig. You can’t continue to serve an organization whose stance you fundamentally disagree with, and you shouldn’t have to.

In short…

Taking a stance in any part of your life can be challenging. But doing it at the place where you make your livelihood requires a special level of care and attention.

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