How to Pick Your Battles at Work

Check out these tips before you walk into that meeting, principles blazing.

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

There’s the small stuff – like deciding if you should tell your peer about their less-than-stellar proofreading. Or sending a mass email about the office microwave.

But as you progress in your career, bigger battles fall onto your lap. You might find yourself convincing your org to work in a new way – be it around technology, your mission, or ethics.

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 fight.

Before we get into it, a few key reminders.

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

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

2. You are not your org’s savior.

It’s not your job to create lasting change overnight, unless you’re the ED herself. 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 if the goal is to actually see some change in your org, then timing is everything.

4. You can be on the right side of an argument, but 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 or rude, take a step back.

Before I walk into a meeting and make my case for something, I usually ask myself these 3 questions.

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

Now this isn’t to discourage you! Situations just have this funny way of convincing us that something is a good idea in the heat of a moment. Even if it’s not.

You’ve got to figure out if the way you feel right now is going to be the same way you feel 3 minutes/weeks/years from now too.

And while you reflect on this question, consider these factors:

a. Your position at the org

“Position” here isn’t just about title and seniority. It’s about how staff actually see you.

Think this one through before you make your case, because it will affect the amount of say (and sway) you’ll have on everyone else.

b. Your chances at creating change

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

Do you work in a place that is 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 and decide if you’re okay with those odds.

c. Your ratio of gains to losses.

Every professional stand comes with potential gains & risk. You only want to act on the ones that are worth it.

So look at your “gain-to-loss” ratio. Do the benefits of your best-case scenario outweigh the consequences of your worst-case scenario?

Question #2: Is this a battle I’m 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 at hand? Put yourself in a staff member’s shoes: if you were hearing this pitch from someone with your knowledge, would you feel convinced?

If that answer is no, get to researching.

b. Your ability to articulate the problem

Here’s the thing. The way you present information is often more important than what you actually say.

It can be nerve-wracking to make a case for something you believe in. That’s why you’ve got to plan your delivery in advance. Your idea deserves the best platform (chance) it can get.

c. Your readiness to defend the solution.

You can have the smartest idea in the world, and someone will always be there to resist it.

Sticking to your guns can feel uncomfortable, so try to anticipate questions and challenges in advance.

d. Your supporters

Is this something other staff want to see? Do you have reason to think you’ll gain significant support? There’s power in numbers and authority.

Question #3:  Is this a battle I’m 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.

You might be able to revisit it at a much later date.

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

I totally understand the frustration of projects getting turned down.

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 leaving a job over.

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.

We’ve finally reached the end…

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.

Share your thoughts!