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  • Writer's pictureAlan Shoebridge

Arguing at work: Are you fighting the good fight or just being difficult?

When two sides disagree on something and neither wants to back down, small disagreements often become big problems that can derail projects at work. If de-escalation doesn’t happen quickly, relationships can be broken beyond repair. Trust is lost and everyone loses in the end. In most cases someone should have backed down, yet there are times when it makes sense to take a stand.

There are many philosophies on how to react, but I’m going to choose the words from a true American classic: You need to know when to hold 'em, fold 'em or walk away. Whether you’re being asked to make a major change to a campaign or just add a comma to a sentence where it doesn’t really belong, assess the situation carefully and see if you can put it into one of the three categories below.

Hold 'em

  • You have actual hard data to back up your position.

  • There are no stated goals or objectives for the work you’re being asked to do.

  • What you’re being asked to do goes against your published brand or company guidelines.

  • The work will be publicly seen by a broad audience, and it will be embarrassing to you and the company.

That last example leans toward the subjective and personal side of the equation, but it’s probably worth fighting back until you can get some concessions that improve the work to a more acceptable standard.

Fold 'em

  • It’s a small change that doesn’t affect the overall meaning or reduce the potential impact of a project.

  • It will help you build a good relationship with someone without damaging your own credibility or the organization’s brand.

  • Fighting will only delay the work; you’ll most likely have to cave on your position in the end anyway.

Here’s a personal example from my career. I once took over a difficult client situation that had a backlog of more than 20 small projects that were all stalled. I remember that one of them centered on a disagreement over a small section of copy in a brochure. The change the client wanted wasn’t exactly what I would have recommended, but it was important to them and it was unlikely to confuse readers. So, I approved the copy they wanted on the spot and we produced the piece.

The previous project manager had sat on the work for months and wouldn’t advance it unless they used the exact copy she wanted. When I was flexible on that first project, I then moved through the remaining 20 projects in less than a month and built a great relationship with the client where they trusted me in the future whenever I did need to push back. You can’t build a good relationship by always giving in, but always fighting is probably even worse.

Walk away (or run!)

  • You’re being asked do something immoral, unethical or illegal.

  • The person you’re dealing with is abusive or the team you’re working with is toxic.

These two examples are deal-breakers and obviously the first one could be a situation where you need to run right away - perhaps to the authorities or at least your human resources department. The second scenario might be more of a "walk away" situation where you figure out how to end the relationship after the dispute is over.

Why this matters so much

Truly effective, positive relationships require balance and compromise. Always pushing for your way can be effective for a short period of time, but it is never the right approach for the long-term. They key here is that your decision shouldn’t be subjective and in general you should avoid bringing your personal emotions into the decision.

So, whenever you feel the urge to fight for something make sure you’re doing it for the best reasons and to benefit everyone involved. In other words: Know when to hold 'em, fold 'em or walk away!

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