How can you fight your battles at work without hurting your career?

Nov 04, 2021 6 mins

How can you fight your battles at work without hurting your career?
Aurélie Cerffond

Journaliste @Welcome to the jungle

“We need to ban plastic cups in the office. The team didn’t get the Christmas bonus they deserved, and I’ve created a petition to change the coffee provider!” In every company, there are those who sit quietly doing their work and then there are those who fight for all kinds of causes. Your battles with management, both personal and collective, may be admirable, but this argumentative attitude can annoy others –– even though it benefits the team –– and can be detrimental to your career. You’ve got the soul of an activist, so how can you keep pushing the issues that are important to you while keeping the peace and moving up in the professional world? It might be time to pick your battles. Eric P, a coach specializing in career development, has given us a few pointers on how to sort these things out.

Battlefield: open spaces

Air quality, computer equipment performance or salary transparency: at work, the “chief” activist has many battles to fight. Not to be confused with the “complainer-in-chief,” the activist is committed to improving the company’s operations and the day-to-day lives of all its employees. And they’ll put the same energy into defending the interests of the team as they will into fighting for personal reasons, such as to get a parking space. During the pandemic, they pestered the boss to send an ergonomist who specializes in remote work to the homes of all staff and they asked the company to buy everyone special masks. Sometimes they even take on bigger issues, such as equality in the workplace or paternity leave that is as long as maternity leave. The battles they take on are a tasty mix of their personal demands and their convictions about equal treatment in the workplace. Their goal is to improve working conditions for everyone.

A knightly side, motivated by noble causes

By taking on multiple fights at work, this committed employee attracts –– or even monopolizes –– all the attention. That kind of behavior can annoy other members of their team, who may think the activist is doing this just to get noticed. But it would be wrong to underestimate their sense of justice. This type of person’s motivations are usually much deeper, says the career coach. “It’s often a colleague who’s passionate about upholding their deeply-held values of loyalty, commitment and fidelity. Before complaining about them, let’s recognize that their approach has value and their motivations are pure.” If they interrupt the annual presentation when the boss is boasting about the company’s annual results, it’s with the intention of highlighting the lack of recognition for the work accomplished by their team.

Risking their career

With their assertive personality, the activist may not always fit easily into the company mold. A position which, in the long term, is not without risk for their career.

Fighting alone

  • An aggressive way of expressing themselves
    While the causes the employee defends are almost always commendable, the way they express those demands or needs is often the problem. They might get carried away by their convictions and can come across as tactless, or even aggressive. In business, it’s not appropriate to yell at the company’s sales manager and accuse them of decimating the Amazon forest –– even if they are wasting lots of paper by printing out a 75-page presentation. “By acting like this, the ‘activist-in-chief’ is treating his colleagues like children, which is neither pleasant nor empowering for the person being targeted,” the expert says. This kind of demanding attitude puts pressure on their colleagues and can make them feel uncomfortable.

  • A reputation as ‘Lord of the Buzzkill’
    They are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. Unlike everyone else, this troublemaker won’t hesitate to come over and disturb their colleagues to call their way of working into question. One day they’re blaming the IT tech for problems with the computer system, the next day they’re explaining to the HR manager that salaries are too low, and the day after that it’s the manager who’s incapable of handling a communication problem. “Even if what they say is right, they’re viewed as the ‘troublemaker’ who criticizes everything and everyone,” says the expert.

  • … who isn’t unanimously accepted
    There’s no agreement within the team about this divisive personality, and that can hinder their professional development. Managerial positions are more often given to those with more diplomatic personalities. Such posts go to staff who are not so blunt, according to Eric P. In other words, “diplomats who are more easy-going when dealing with others, who play by the rules, and give up on certain battles.” The expectation is that the coffee machine white knight would find it difficult to deal with the constraints imposed by a management position: how can they support management’s decision to cut certain expenses when they themselves are advocating for better pay for their team? While any promotion may take longer, or not happen at all, given their combative nature, they run even bigger risks in the short term.

Sparring with their manager

Depending on the direction being taken by the company, as well as its managerial maturity, the outspoken activist could quickly find themselves on the sidelines. Why? Certain managers may not want to deal with this kind of disruptive element, especially if they call out the manager too often. A boss who feels cornered might even be tempted to push them out.

When it comes to this last point, corporate culture is a determining factor: for example, critical thinking is better appreciated within start-ups and smaller companies. Where there’s a flatter hierarchy and an innovative approach, teams are encouraged to question traditional ways of working. This entrepreneurial spirit is better suited to the “demanding” employee, who can more easily express their opinions and have a good relationship with their manager. “The tremendous energy this type of employee has will then be used for the benefit of the company,” says the coach. “We use their sense of conviction and their ability to mobilize to push the company forward.”

How to keep your justice-seeking soul from getting in the way of your career

Do you recognize yourself here? Don’t worry, you don’t have to give up the fight for the sake of your career. Just follow these tips to create a gentler battlefield strategy.

1. Stop your crusades

If you are determined to get your way, don’t forget to listen to others.“Sometimes, when we are trying to promote an idea or a project, we act without realizing we’ve cut ourselves off from the group,” the coach says. “This attitude is negative because the other members of the team won’t want to listen to you anymore. They might even want to keep you from getting ahead.” Say, for example, you want to reduce the company’s energy consumption and you think that lowering the heating by two degrees in the office is a great way to achieve this. Before forging ahead, why not ask your colleagues if they’re okay with dressing more warmly. If they don’t like that idea, perhaps you could suggest lowering the temperature by one degree. In the business world, being flexible will help you achieve your goals, says our expert.

2. Pick your battles

If you have something to say about every single thing at work, it will get to a point where you will not be heard anymore. Your colleagues will grow tired of hearing you telling them what you think is right all the time and they will stop listening to you. The result? You’ll exhaust yourself by spreading yourself too thin. To avoid this, the best solution is to choose your battles and spend your energy on the issues that matter the most to you, but also the ones that are most compatible with your job and your company.

To do this, simply establish your list of priorities according to your values, your professional and personal priorities, your projects and your hopes. Then adapt your list to your professional environment so that you choose causes you want to defend, and issues where you can really make an impact. So, for example, as remote working has become more widespread, some people have struggled to cope with the always-on culture. You could choose to focus on measures to improve support and dialogue within your team, and see that everyone is able to disconnect. At the same time, you can put off your project to make the cafeteria go vegetarian until a later date.

3. Enjoy the small victories

The progress of any battle is measured in baby steps. “A large battle is always a series of small victories, advances, setbacks, pauses,” says the career coach. Change, especially at work, can take time, and that’s why it’s important to be happy with each small step forward. This attitude will energize you and help you to achieve your long-term goals. So rather than rushing in head first, you can choose to take a more measured approach: explain your intentions several times, find support, rally other colleagues to your cause. If you dream about your company going “zero waste”, you can start by setting up recycling bins, getting rid of plastic cups and praising any colleagues who’ve started to use reusable water bottles. There are plenty of ways to achieve your goals that can be liberating and create stronger bonds with your fellow employees.

If you want to share your convictions at work but you don’t want to run the risk of causing offense, anger or misunderstanding, then you really need to let go of any tendency to be harsh or overly demanding with your colleagues. When you know what is important to you, and are willing to open yourself up to new ways of achieving your goals, you’ll be able to make sure that your company moves in a positive direction. And you’ll avoid ending up in the hot seat.

Translated by: Kalin Linsberg

Photo: WTTJ

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