When and why to pick your battles: The hidden connection to logrolling

We’ve all heard the hackneyed organizational advice to “pick your battles.” But there are two interrelated and semi-obvious problems with this (and much other) advice: No one can clearly say when or why it applies.

Luckily, negotiation research has something indirectly but highly relevant to say about picking your battles. Since understanding what it is can make organizational life negotiable, let’s unravel these cryptic comments further.

The negotiation literature has not, to my knowledge, directly investigated picking your battles. But it has often investigated the negotiation strategy of logrolling, in which you make a concession on a relatively trivial issue if (and only if) your counterpart concedes on something of critical importance to you. You accept the silly financing plan if the dealer gives you the coveted discount. You agree to work on the task you secretly sorta like if your coworker relieves you of something onerous.

As you might suspect from the examples, the ability to effectively logroll is central to the ability to effectively negotiate in general. The logic is simple: It’s often considerably more satisfying to get everything you want on a really important issue (and nothing on something trivial) than is to get half of what you wanted on both.

Now what (in the world) does this have to do with picking your battles? Quite a lot, actually. Because what does it mean to pick your battles if not to let someone have their way on an issue that doesn’t really rock your world (but might rock theirs), in expectation that you’ll demand your way on a future issue capable of making your own world shudder? Put like that, the connection to logrolling is obvious: picking your battles is simply logrolling spread over time—conceding on the unimportant issues of the present in exchange for someone else’s concessions on the critical issues of the future.

If you buy the analogy, then you should find it easier to detect the situations when the advice really applies: when you’re dealing with an issue that’s trivial to you and critical to them, as well as a person you expect to depend on in the future. (If any of these conditions don’t apply, battle away!) Additionally, you should find it easier to motivate your own battle-picking since you can now see the benefits looming down the line. Most importantly, you should increasingly find yourself waging and winning the critical battles at work rather than belaboring and losing the continuous war.

Negotiation as entrepreneurship

When we hear the word “negotiate,” we often think of ourselves in a “negotiation,” staring down an unscrupulous car dealer or intransigent HR representative. Only infrequently do we treat “negotiate” as what it is: a verb.

That’s a shame because it leads us to forget that negotiating is an action people choose to take. Someone has to decide to negotiate. Remembering that can help us see negotiation for what it really is: an entrepreneurial attempt to achieve our own goals by helping someone else do the same. And seeing negotiation as entrepreneurship can make life more negotiable.

A quick, simple, real-life story to illustrate what I mean: I hate and I mean hate putting away all my clothes after they’re washed. I’m not sure what it is: perhaps it’s the press of other priorities, e.g., the need to publish or perish. Or perhaps just laziness. Regardless, I despise few chores more than folding and hanging. My wife, in turn, hates and I mean hates cleaning the cat box. And her reasoning is a little more sensible: it stinks and spills all over the place, and the cat inevitably decides to resolve his indigestion at just that moment. Loving my boy cat to pieces, however, I don’t really mind it.

Now, this looks nothing like a negotiation—particularly the kind with the car dealer or HR rep. But it clearly presents the opportunity to negotiate—and did in real life. Talking through our respective hates one day, she expressed confusion over mine: “What’s so bad about putting your clothes away?” And herein lay an entrepreneurial opportunity.

No, I wasn’t launching a Silicon Valley startup, seeking VC funding, or even setting up a corner store. But I would like to think I was being quite entrepreneurial when I proposed the simple and obvious trade: How about you put my clothes away if I clean the cat box? It’s not rocket science, and my end of the bargain may even seem silly if you like folding or dislike cat excrement. But it made sense to both of us at the time and made us both better off over the long run.

It’s a silly story, I know, but it has a point: the real purpose of negotiation is not to bend a car dealer into submission. It’s to create value by meeting your own needs and someone else’s at the same time. Since doing that is the same as being entrepreneurial, we’d probably all benefit by starting to see negotiation as entrepreneurship rather than conflict.