A reader writes:
I have a question regarding workplace conflicts.
I am currently a junior staff member and much of my job involves writing. The thing is, such work tends to be very subjective, and lots of people claim that they have a good eye for design, taste, or writing. I always have this conflict with this manager (not my direct manager). She tends to have very specific ideas about what writing should be like, for example using sophisticated writing (think Harvard Business Review), while I tend to use casual language (think Buzzfeed).
We had differences over a writing project that happened to involve one of her products. I wrote a long form article and sent it to her just to fact-check. She came back and said that it was too casual, and she wanted it to be more specific and formal.
While I have no issues with filling in content gaps, I was not too keen on using formal tone, as I believe that content should be accessible and reader-friendly, not dry, sterile, and bland. I did not back down, and kept rationalizing with her.
Ultimately, she sent it to our Communications head, who commented that my writing needs to be mellowed down and not sound overly casual. It was short of saying that it needs to be formal. I assume it was for my benefit as well, since such work tends to be subjective, even though there are brand or corporate guidelines to stick to, and there may be some leeway I can use.
I can accept this — to try to hold back on being too casual — but I stand by my principle for writing for the mass audience. I gave it some thought, and have decided to reply that I will tone it down, but I will still try to make my writing more digestible and accessible for the mass audience, including using plain, simple language. I will also maintain that my writing will not be overly formal, lest we bore our audience.
More broadly, how do you decide what battles to pick? What kind of situations warrant escalating, and when will you let things go? In my case, I felt that things would have turned out better had I gone along with the manager’s comments and not voiced my disagreement, but at the same time, by giving an inch I fear that she will take a mile in the future, where she wil dictate my writing style, when it’s quite subjective.
I am curious to understand your thought process on this, and what factors you use to assess what workplace conflicts are worth engaging and dragging out, and which you will let go.
Well, let’s address this specific situation and then talk about those questions more broadly.
Ultimately, it’s your employer’s call what kind of work they want. If managers above you are telling you that they want more formal writing, then that’s their prerogative, even if you feel strongly that they’re wrong. It doesn’t matter that “good writing” is subjective. It’s still their call.
To be clear, a good manager will want to hear that you have a different point of view. A good manager will welcome dissent, take genuine interest in viewpoints other than her own, and truly consider input that’s different from her perspective. But ultimately, she may make a different decision that the one you want her to make, and she has the standing to do that. At that point, you need to decide if you can live reasonably happily with what you’re being told to do, or whether you feel so strongly about it that this isn’t the job for you.
What you can’t do is to continue to argue about it over and over, and you definitely can’t just do it your own way anyway.
At absolute most, you can sometimes say something like, “I feel really strongly about this because of X and Y. Would you be willing to allow me to try it my way on an upcoming low-stakes project to test out how it goes?” But if the answer is no, you can’t just ignore that and continue to do it your own way. This is the nature of having a boss.
Now, let’s talk about your broader questions. The same principles apply: When you disagree with your employer about something, decide how important it is to you, speak up if it’s important, and then decide if you can live with the decision if it’s not one you like.
In deciding whether it makes sense to push back on something, you should take a few factors into account: how much you care about it and how unhappy you’d be if nothing changes, how much standing you have to push back (how senior you are, how much your work is valued, how well positioned you are to have special insight into the topic, how much political capital you’ve accrued and spent on other things, and frankly how much people like you personally), and how receptive the person you’re approaching is to input. For example, if your company plans to change some software that you’re the main user of and it’s going to add significant time to your work, it makes sense to push back. If you’re a summer intern who thinks the company should change its dress code, it doesn’t.
And again, if you do decide to speak up and you don’t get the outcome you wanted, in most cases you can’t keep arguing something over and over. If you do that, at a minimum you’re likely to get a reputation for being a pain in the ass who doesn’t understand how hierarchy works, and they may even decide they’d rather replace you with someone who’s easier to work with.
I think there’s an underlying belief in your letter that it’s okay to keep pushing and pushing if you’re right, but work just doesn’t work that way. There are people above you who are in charge of making decisions, and part of your job is to accept and execute those decisions (again, after voicing your viewpoint if there’s an important difference in perspective). If you disagree strongly enough, you can always leave — but you can’t stick around and just keep telling them they’re wrong and they should do it your way.
(Important caveat: If the issue is very serious — something like unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment, or illegal labor practices — that changes the calculation. You should always default to speaking up in those situations. And in those cases, it will often make sense to amplify the power of your voice by speaking up with others, as a group.)
Here are some related posts that explore different aspects of this:
how to disagree with your boss and keep your job
how to disagree with your boss in a meeting
when should you go over your boss’s head?
can your employer do that? probably, but you can still discuss it
what to do when your employer is breaking the law
how should you decide which battles to pick at work? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.