It’s my own fault. I should never have started watching “Marco Polo,” the new Netflix series about the world of Kublai Kahn, the fearsome Mongol warrior who conquered a continent, despite having some of the very worst hair days on record.
The star of the program is theoretically Marco, who is definitely buff enough to gain our admiration — who knew they had Pilates machines in ancient Mongolia? — but it is the great Kahn who has had the greatest influence on me. When it came to solving disputes, he was always ready to drop the nearest fulsome concubine, pick up his mighty sword and go into battle.
Personally, I don’t have any concubines — I could, but we turned the extra bedroom into a sewing room — and I long ago traded my mighty sword for an iPad, but when it comes to going into battle in the workplace, I am totally into the blood-thirsty philosophy of the Kahn. Or so I thought, until I read “To Fight, or Not to Fight? How to Pick Your Battles in the Workplace,” a recent Sue Shellenbarger column in “The Wall Street Journal.”
As Shellenbarger sagely points out, “aggravations on the job are a fact of life. From the colleague who steals your chair to the colleague who steals your clients, there is enough potential for conflict to take up the entire work week.”
(Note to Leonard in the next cubical: I didn’t “steal” your new Aeron chair. I am simply breaking it in for you.)
While great warriors like the Kahn and myself are ready to go to war over the slightest provocation, professional advisors, like executive coach Lynne Eisaguirre, recommend that you “tackle only problems that are truly important.”
I agree. Who cares if someone takes my chair? I’m going to spend most of the day in the supply closet napping, anyway. And who cares if anyone takes my clients? It only means less work for me. But try to grab the last glazed creme-filled French crueler on the donut tray in the coffee room, and buster, you’ve got a fight on your hands.
Another executive coach, Dr. Shelley Reciniello, seems to support my “Take no donuts. Take no prisoners” approach. To the wimpy worker who would choose flight over fight, Reciniello points out that “simmering frustrations can come out in other ways, fostering passive-aggressive behavior such as slacking off or backstabbing.”
These behaviors, presumably, are bad things, though, to be honest, without slacking off and backstabbing, there really would be very little for you to do at work. (On the other hand, if you stopped slacking off and backstabbing, you could focus on your other key activities, complaining and gossiping.)
Another problem that can come up if you decide to fight a battle is the need to “control your emotions during a confrontation and manage any counterfire from your opponent.”
I know it seems risible, but others may have the deluded idea that, whatever the problem may be, some, much or all of the responsibility may be yours. Fortunately, there are ways to keep a lid on your feelings. You can seek professional help from a therapist, or master the art of moderation by studying with a Zen monk, or you can follow the advice of the article and “find a safe place to vent first.”
And this, children, is why mankind invented bars, taverns and the “all-you-can-eat-buffalo-wings-happy-hour” at the Kit Kat Klub.
If you do decide to follow the great Kahn and myself into battle, the experts advise that “before picking a battle, it is important to be willing to offer a solution or work with others to find one.”
This may sound difficult, but it really is quite easy.
“I know exactly how to fix this problem,” you can say to your opponent in your most cooperative voice. “Management needs to fire stupid idiots like you.”
Other expert advice includes avoiding “some kind of battles, altogether, such as disputes over someone’s personality or style.” I suppose that could be true, but, really, how long can you peacefully coexist with someone who wears Axe or has a Pitbull ringtone. No judge would ever convict you.
Finally, the experts think “it isn’t wise to take up conflicts with people who are a lot more powerful than you.” If this is true, it is disappointing. If you can’t fight with anyone at work more powerful than you, you really won’t be able to fight with anyone at all.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at firstname.lastname@example.org.