Managers Must Choose Their Battles Carefully

The most difficult choices you’ll ever have to make as a manager are in choosing your battles. You need to answer three questions:

1.) Which battles can be won?
2.) Which battles do I have to win?
3.) Which battles are best not to fight?

You can’t win all battles. For example, you shouldn’t resist if a mugger sticks a gun in your back and demands your money. Other battles can be won but the price of winning is too high. Taking a customer to small claims court over an unpaid $20 invoice is unwise when the court cost is $75.

An example often brought up by managers is employees who smoke. Smoking in the office was acceptable thirty years ago. Allowing smokers to light up at their desks today will run off non-smokers. While you’re not legally required to allow smokers a place to smoke, failing to do so would probably cause you to lose smoking employees. A reasonable solution is to forbid smoking in the office but allow it outside. The next battle is how many smoke breaks to allow. If smokers take ten smoke breaks per day and non-smokers take only two, we have a question of fairness. We need to hold everyone to the same number of breaks regardless of what they choose to do while on break. The next battle will be the non-smoker who complains about the cigarette odor from the smoker. This is a battle you should allow the smoker to win. We all sit next to smokers on airplanes, in movie theatres and even at church. Expecting you to provide a smoke free office is reasonable. Expecting smokers not to smell like smoke is not.

Even law enforcement has to choose their battles. Legendary lawman Elliott Ness spent years trying to bust Al Capone for murder and organized crime. He couldn’t do it. Prosecutors eventually put Capone away for tax evasion. Ness felt as though he failed. I visited Capone’s cell in Alcatraz and can testify it was sufficient punishment, no matter what the charge was. A conviction for tax evasion isn’t as illustrious as a conviction for murder, but it did the job.

Your battles may not be as serious as law and order, but choosing them wisely will still have a huge impact on your effectiveness as manager. So how do you decide which battles you need to win? Start by asking these questions. (1.) How much will this matter in five days? (2.) How much will this matter in five months? (3.) How much will this matter in five years? You’ll be amazed at how much clarity you will gain once you answer these three questions.

Glenn Shepard is a speaker, coach, and author in Nashville, TN. This article is excerpted from his book “How to Manage Problem Employees: A Step-by-Step Guide to Turning Difficult Employees into High Performers”, available at Borders, Barnes & Noble, and He also publishes a free weekly newsletter at

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