Many workplaces are full of issues and challenges that need to be solved or overcome.
I think some generally good advice is that you need to “pick your battles”.
That is, you need to decide which issues are worth fighting for, and which you should let go.
After all, we only have so much time and attention, so it’s counterproductive to try to tackle every challenge at once.
So Which Is It? Avoidance or Picking Your Battles?
The challenge with the advice of picking your battles is that it sometimes gives us an “out”.
We can simply say we’re choosing to overlook this or that problem, because there are bigger things to worry about. Bigger fish to fry.
I can feel a palpable sense of relief when someone convinces themselves that there are more important things they can focus on.
So the trick is to identify whether this is true, or just an illusion we create to protect ourselves.
One way I see this appearing is that some leaders tend to bury their heads in the work, rather than the surrounding people problems that are making the work more difficult.
So the aim of this post is to provide some simple guidelines to highlight when you might actually be picking your battles wisely, or if you may be heading instead down the path of avoidance.
Learn More: Avoiding Conflict? Here’s What’s Really Happening.
Why Do Leaders Avoid Tackling Certain Problems?
I’ve noticed avoidance cropping up often in workplaces, so it’s worth looking at why this might be.
The first and fairly obvious reason is because tackling certain problems is uncomfortable.
It’s much nicer to avoid discomfort, so we can feel better about ourselves and the situation. The obvious problem with this approach is that the challenge may not go away, and may even get worse.
Second, we tend to be optimistic by nature. This is referred to as optimism bias, and means that we may mistakenly believe things will turn out well for us, even if there is evidence to the contrary.
Being optimistic can be positive. It’s what keeps us believing we can do great things, and overcome our challenges. But it can also provide us with a positivity blanket that can prevent us from taking action.
“I’m sure it’ll sort itself out.”
Learn More: Is Optimism Bias Sabotaging Your Leadership?
Adaptive or Technical Challenges
And lastly, I think a major reason for failing to tackle issues is the nature of the problem itself.
Adaptive leadership theory tells us that there are adaptive challenges and technical challenges. Technical challenges are those that can be solved with a technical solution, with facts and logic.
Adaptive challenges tend to be trickier, involving changing behaviour and tackling the status quo and existing ways of working. They don’t have a concrete solution, and therefore can involve a significant degree of uncertainty.
The uncertainty around these problems tends to lead to procrastination. After all, it’s hard to feel confident about solving a problem when there is no clear technical solution.
While technical challenges may still be complex to solve, their solution lies in being able to harness knowledge and turn it into action. Adaptive challenges often involve grey areas that need consistent effort, with no simple fix.
Couple the uncertainty of a challenge with optimism bias, and you have a potent source of avoidance.
Nobody can tell you for sure that it won’t sort itself out, can they?
Simple Guidelines for Identifying Avoidance
Picking your battles is smart, but not when used as an excuse to avoid tackling real problems.
So let’s look at some potential guidelines to try to tell whether we are simply letting ourselves “off the hook”, or whether we are justifyied in overlooking the issue at hand.
Look for the Recurring Pattern
I sometimes work with coaching clients who are considering leaving their jobs.
If you have a bad boss, or are working in a difficult environment and are simply not enjoying your role, then this is of course a valid potential option.
However, many of my clients also notice that even if they quit, they are not really solving the problem for the long term. The issue may reappear and become a recurring theme in their work and lives.
The trick is to look for a recurring pattern. A recurring pattern might show up as:
- Making multiple similar decisions that tend to have a poor outcome
- A familiar “people problem” that you notice arising again and again; or
- Facing the same sort of challenge multiple times.
If you find that you are facing a recurring pattern, it might be that avoidance is not helping with the root cause.
Otherwise, you might simply find yourself staring at this problem again in a different form in the future.
Look for Signs of Resistance
A temptation to avoid is often found where there is resistance.
By resistance, I mean the uncomfortable feeling that we don’t want to do something.
We may feel it as fear, anxiety or frustration. The topic of resistance is covered extensively in the book The War of Art, which is worth a read (it’s not really an “arty” book, as the title indicates).
As the book suggests, sometimes tackling resistance is exactly what we need to grow the most.
So if that difficult conversation, aggressive person or frustrating team member is getting you down, it might be that engaging with them more closely is exactly what you need to do!
Look at the Language of Control
One of my favourite simple tools is the Sphere of Control from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
It comprises three “spheres”, which are control, influence and concern.
Things in our sphere of concern tend to worry us, and we may spend time thinking about them – but they are out of our control.
The spheres of control and influence, on the other hand, contain those things we can actively do to influence our situation, or control it directly.
For example, we can have a conversation with our boss (in our control), to persuade them of our point of view about something (in our influence).
Picking your battles starts in the areas that we can control and influence.
Are You Operating In the Wrong Sphere?
This is a useful tool, until we convince ourselves that things are in the wrong sphere. Some of this type of language tends to give it away:
- They’d never listen to me
- They’ve made up their mind
- It wouldn’t make a difference
- It would have happened anyway; or
- I can’t do anything about that.
If you notice yourself falling prey to this sort of language, it’s worth stopping to think:
Are these statements true, or are they being used as an excuse?
When we convince ourselves that things are out of our control, we give ourselves a reason to give up, to stop trying.
Sometimes this can have us sitting in “victim” mode, which is a helpless place to be.
Learn More: Do You Have a Victim Leadership Mentality?
Use These Guidelines to Start Picking Your Battles
I’m not suggesting for a minute that everything is in your control, and that every battle is worth fighting.
But I do find that fear and resistance can have us shying away from challenges that might actually be worth solving. In fact, they might be exactly the challenges that will bring us the biggest benefits!
It’s worth taking the time to reflect on your challenges, and whether there is justified avoidance… or whether the avoidance is simply an excuse to make life feel a little easier in the short term.
Have you noticed any other factors which have you shying away from tackling your challenges? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!