How to Fight Well at Work

At a time when 65% of U.S. workers find work to be a significant source of stress, here’s how to stand up for yourself without destroying your career.

Published: Dec 13, 2019

You’re in a final-hour strategy meeting ahead of a major project launch when a coworker who’s barely been involved up to this point suggests something so outlandish, insulting, or off base, your blood starts to boil. You can feel the anger washing over you. Do you push back, throw a fit, or suck it up and stew?

Many people will do the latter, choosing to bottle up their frustration and say nothing. It’s not an unreasonable reaction: after all, there’s a fine line between arguing against a coworker’s suggestion and turning the disagreement into all-out war. And with human resources growing increasingly hyperaware of any sort of aggressive or potentially insensitive interactions, saying nothing may seem like the safest option.

Having a solid sense of your team’s mission and priorities is the best yardstick for determining what’s worth getting angry about and what can be ignored.

But it’s human nature to lose it sometimes. Indeed, 52% of employees in a survey from consultancy Robert Half said they’ve lost their temper on the job. What’s more, fighting back, when done with the intention of standing up for yourself, your team, and the greater organization, can actually be highly effective. According to a field study by Harvard University researchers, employees who were asked to speak up when they disagreed with colleagues reported higher levels of confidence and engagement in their work, and received better performance ratings from their managers, than those who stayed quiet.  At a time when nearly 65% of U.S. employees cite their job as a significant source of stress, here’s how to stand up for yourself at work.

Consider how much the particular issue matters.

Sure, you’re upset. But before you go into battle mode, use your emotional intelligence. Is there a reason this particular comment or topic is grating on you? Is there some motivation your coworker has that would legitimize their stance? Does the comment have real implications for your team, or is it bothering you because you simply can’t stand the person who said it? Experts say having a solid sense of your team’s mission and priorities is the best yardstick for determining what’s worth getting angry about and what can be ignored.

Strive to find commonality.

You don’t just want to attack other people during an argument, says Stacey Perkins, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Instead, let them know that they’ve been heard. Listen to what they have to say and then start your response with “That is a valid point” before going into why you disagree. You might not find their opinions fair or sound, but you also don’t want to be the one to escalate things. Try to keep your conversation about the problem at hand, without rolling in previous examples of how that person may have frustrated you. And never battle on email; it creates a paper trail that can come back to bite you later.

Know when to take a breather.

John Curtis, a workplace lawyer and mediator, says one of the biggest mistakes he sees in his work is that when two colleagues start a disagreement, the two sides believe a final decision must be made then and there. Instead, ask yourself, “Must I take a stand today?” If it’s not something that needs to be worked out then and there, suggest tabling the discussion for another time to allow for emotions to cool and more information to present itself.

Try to avoid a walkout moment.

There are times when you may need to be blunt about your feelings. But before you hastily shut your laptop and march out of the room, consider what that might do to your reputation. If you storm off, you’re not only forcing your colleagues to draw battle lines; you risk coming off as unprofessional. Walking out of a situation isn’t something easily forgotten, and therefore shouldn’t be done lightly. “I wouldn’t walk out unless you’re just walking out for good,” Perkins says.

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