In many cases, our reputation is at risk because of forces beyond our control. The economy sours. A big customer stops buying. A new competitor takes away market share. Our company has a bad quarter. And, assuming we still have a job after such setbacks, we feel the effects in heightened pressure and insecurity at work. If we lose our job, our mojo may suffer. If we keep our job, it may still suffer.
Unlike the global economy, our proclivity to get into pointless arguments is something we can control. Arguing can needlessly create enemies who could have been allies. I say needlessly because many of our arguments fall into classic patterns that, if looked at from a distance, would seem silly and beneath our dignity. We don’t have to do this. We can choose to engage or abstain as the situation warrants.
I agree it is worth arguing over true injustice in the workplace or in the world. What I am discussing here is arguing about perceived injustices that usually say more about our own egos than the “cause” we are championing.
By recognizing classic argument traps, we can better determine which battles to ?ght and which to avoid. At work, and even more so at home, even the arguments we “win” can be Pyrrhic victories that are not worth the cost of engagement.
Everyone, at work or at home, has opinions. The vast majority of human beings enjoy expressing these opinions. In fact, we like to see this as our right. The arguments begin when people feel they’re not getting the chance to be heard — when someone tells them, in effect, “Be quiet already.”
Sometimes we just go too far. Sometimes we just can’t stop. Sometimes the ?nal decision makers have heard all they are going to hear and believe it is time to move on. It can be very hard for smart, committed people — especially stubborn people — to just let it go.
“Be quiet already” comes in many guises, ranging from obnoxious — someone actually saying “Shut up!” — to euphemistic: “I appreciate your input.” In between are a variety of thoughtful or thoughtless tactics that aim to silence us. These include the decision maker cutting you off mid-sentence and asking, “Anything else on your mind?” Or saying, “I got it. Next.” Or a colleague rolling his eyes while you’re talking. Or interrupting to change the subject. No matter how well-disguised the tactic, the net result is the same: We’ve lost the argument.
Rather than just admitting we tried to sell our point and did not succeed, we may ?nd decision makers’ efforts to stop us from continuing insulting. We are so convinced we’re right, we believe if we keep talking just a little more, they will see the light and change their minds.
That’s the moment when many people ratchet up — rather than tone down — their campaign to be heard, or in this case, re-heard. People who’ve lost the argument may search for a new way to revive the debate, usually by picking a fight with the person who rejected their input.
What they don’t realize, of course, is that it was over the moment they were silenced and the initial discussion turned to another subject. Trying to revisit the subject hours, days or weeks later is like being a debater who missed the opportunity to make a lethal point early in the debate and tries to make up for it by introducing “What I should have said” long after everyone has moved on.
When we think we’re not being heard, we tend to shout even louder — which is about the time others cover their ears or run from the room.
When we keep fighting after the bell has rung, we can start damaging our reputation. In the end we will not win more arguments, we will win fewer. Our arguing will be viewed more as our own stubborn need to prove we are right than as a sincere commitment to help the organization.
Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 31 books, including MOJO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.