Pick Your Battles: Why Business Leaders Shouldn't Tackle Every Problem

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We’ve all seen our parents or some other couple argue about something incredibly petty. Sometimes, these arguments can last for days with neither party giving an inch. All of this may be over whether a sandwich should be cut widthwise or lengthwise, and how the heck do you tell the difference anyway? We roll our eyes and think, "Geez, I would never do that."

Pick Your Battles Meaning

Although it is unclear who first said, “Pick your battles,” it’s often attributed to the author C. Joybell C. She is quoted as saying: “Choose your battles wisely. After all, life isn’t measured by how many times you stood up to fight. It’s not winning battles that makes you happy, but it’s how many times you turned away and chose to look into a better direction. Life is too short to spend it on warring. Fight only the most, most, most important ones, let the rest go.”

In the highly competitive business world, whether not winning actually makes you happy is questionable. However, turning away and choosing another direction will certainly lighten your busy schedule and lower your stress level.

As a business leader, the buck stops with you. It’s no wonder you feel the temptation to try to control everything and tackle every problem that comes up. If things go wrong, it’s your job performance and reputation that’s on the line, but if you try to personally handle every single issue that arises, your mental health will be on the line as well as your job performance and reputation.

Knowing the Obvious

First, there’s the obvious. As a leader, you don’t have time to tackle every problem. You’re already responsible for the overall success of the business.

You receive dozens if not hundreds of emails a day. You’re constantly up against deadlines. Then, there’s supervising your staff. Chances are you work long hours and take work home.

With this constant onslaught, it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture and your primary job responsibility: to ensure the success of the business. You must pick your battles because it’s neither realistic nor productive to engage in every single disagreement that comes your way. As a business leader, there will be many on a regular basis. Some are worth taking a stand, and some are not.

How to Know the Difference

Every single battle that comes your way is going to be a time and brain drain. One way to weed out the ones that aren’t worth giving up valuable time and precious brain real estate is to ask yourself whether the issue will matter in a year or two or five.

Think about this in the context of each side winning the argument. If side A wins, what would be the long-term consequences? Then ask yourself the same question about side B.

If the result for both sides is not something that’s going to affect your business’s chances for success, then chuck it. Similarly, if side A or side B prevails and neither win will have a serious effect on your bottom line, then it can go in the trash bin of battles not worthy of you.

Fight Yourself First

Picking the most important battles can be a bit tricky. In addition to thinking about long- term consequences and effects on finances, try having the argument with yourself before you go head to head with the other guy.

Make a list with four columns. Two are for "A wins" and two are for "B wins". List the positive outcomes for an A win in the first A column and the negative consequences for an A win in the second A column. Do the same for B.

You might find yourself in the surprising position of agreeing with your nemesis before the first shot is even fired.

What Happens if I Lose?

It’s great to have a strong ego and a lot of self-confidence. Business leaders usually do. However, it’s not smart to assume you’ll win every battle. So, contemplating what could happen if you lose is a must.

Think about the risk you’re taking. What is the worst thing that could happen? Might it create ill will, damage morale or hurt the company in any way?

Regardless of the results of your risk analysis, in the end, you might still feel like the fight is worth fighting. Perhaps the high potential for a good outcome that benefits the company is worth the risk you're taking. By acknowledging the risks ahead of time, you'll go into the ring with a clear head.

It’s Not About You

Sometimes, we want so badly to be right that we forget that our already-healthy egos don't really need another meal. It’s about the company. Once again, it's about the company. You didn’t wind up in a leadership position by focusing on yourself; you got there by focusing on your company.

So, with this potential battle sitting squarely on your desk, will winning it actually benefit the company in a measurable way? Will making your point lead to increased sales, a greater market share, improved morale or some other benefit? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you should probably get your chainmaille out of storage.

Another thing for which to watch is getting drafted into fighting other people's battles. If a couple of colleagues are going at it over exactly what the mission statement should say, stay out of it. If you have a tendency to want to stick up for the little guy, this could also put you squarely in the middle of a battle that’s not yours to fight. You’ll also be robbing someone of the opportunity to grow by doing it for himself.

Listen to Your Conscience

Now that you’ve evaluated the worthiness of the battle primarily from a quantitative viewpoint, it’s time to listen to your conscience. If the questions you’ve asked yourself so far lead to the conclusion that the battle is not worth fighting, but you have a gnawing feeling in your gut about it, you should listen to that.

If you don’t think you’ll be able to sleep at night without going for it, you may have to do so. Battles that get the green light from your conscience when every other indicator says "don’t do it" may be of the whistleblower variety. You might lose the support of your peers and even your job, but when it’s over, you'll be able to live with yourself.

Consider Calling a Truce

If Israel and Palestine can call a cease fire, so can you. You've already considered what could happen if you go to battle and win as well as what could happen if you lose. Now, it’s time to consider what will happen if you do nothing.

Would an A or B win result in any major improvements or damage to your business? Will either win have a significant impact on revenue and/or expenses? How about a cost/benefit analysis? Depending on the answers to these questions, a win/win solution may be possible.

The win/win can work especially well if both parties to the disagreement are arguing about how to do something. You both agree that the thing needs to be done; you just don’t agree on how to go about it. You’re already starting from a place of mutual agreement, so build on it.

If All Else Fails

If you've used these tools and ideas and still don't have a clear "go for it" or "forget about it," run the issue by a trusted peer, mentor or friend. The more you work on sifting out which battles to fight, the better you’ll get at it. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to size up a worthy battle in a few seconds and put the others in the category of whether a sandwich should be cut widthwise or lengthwise.