Navigating a turf war at work – the do’s and don’ts


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When working together on critical projects, everyone assumes they are in-charge. While that’s great for individual accountability, it can also breed insecurity, unease and eventually, turf wars. Sounds familiar? That’s because turf wars are natural human reactions, for the most part, to normal everyday work circumstances. Expecting the professional space to become more secure and riding itself of territorial disputes about work and life is a long-drawn, if not an unrealistic project. But the least we can do is learn how to manage ourselves at such times.

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Why turf wars happen

Sometimes, it is part of natural evolution on part of the organisations. Businesses grow and expand so quickly in our time that overlaps in functions and accountabilities happen all the time. Then there are moments when they are an intentional show of strength and power dynamics too. Whatever the reason might be, turf wars are often part of the workplace drama. It is a two-way street and the more two parties feed on each other’s insecurities, the worse things can get.

Can we prevent them?

I can’t say for sure if we can prevent turf wars from happening, considering they are rooted in human behaviour. But what we can do is ask for clarity about every party’s roles and responsibilities.

Let’s say your boss calls two of you to work on a cross-functional or collaborative project. Once the brief is out of the way, it is important that you check what the manager’s expectation from both parties is. Often, managers shy away from this level of clarity on roles because that could mean pitting one party against the other and making peers report to one another. But not having clarity can make things much worse. So ask the right questions before you assume you are in-charge and completely accountable for the success or failure of the project.

If you have clarity and you are the one in charge of your end of the deal, be polite but firm about it. Your success and accountability are crucial to you, and you can’t give that up just because the other person is getting insecure. Focus on that message and move on.

We don’t have clarity. Now what?

You have been dealt a bad hand, and you realize quickly that a turf war is on the anvil. Being the bigger person in such times, and delegating authority to a peer is going to be hard on you too. But is it doable? We’d say yes. With a little self-assuredness, everything is possible.

Focus – consistently – on the bigger picture

Sure, it’s great to be in command. Of course, you have the best ideas. But does that mean you have to be the boss at all times? Collaborative projects mean nothing if teams can’t come together and deliver results – as equals.

Before you pass the blame for insecure turf wars on the other party, it is important that you check your own approach to things first. If you are getting down and dirty in the power play of sorts, then stop yourself short. There is no war if only one party is fighting! A work project is just that – a work project. Put your best foot forward and achieve them as a team, and claim credit for your subtle leadership skills when the time is right. Every battle doesn’t have to be won at that very moment. This becomes easy when you have a good manager with an eye for high performance. But even if he or she is not one, nothing should stop you from self-appraisal when the time is right. There is a reason this model of appraisals still works in business.

Be right – a lot

If you are pushing your perspective a lot, be sure to be right. Do your research, bring case studies to support your argument and base your opinions on hard data. That is much harder to ignore and let’s face it, nobody is obliged to listen to you if you don’t give him or her enough reason to.

Learn the art of negotiation and healthy dialogue

Even if you relegate authority temporarily, it might not stop the other party from throwing his or her weight around and not listen to diverse perspectives. If you are going to let this go on unfettered, you might have a lot to lose especially if the other person’s approach is all wrong. This is where the ability to have an adult conversation becomes crucial. Instead of throwing a tantrum and staging walkouts, set up some time to just talk.

We often assume that conflicts will go away if we ignore them – that doesn’t always work. We also assume that emails are a great way to communicate in times of conflict because it gives both parties time to think, frame sentences, and respond objectively. But keyboard wars are a real thing – been there done that. Emails leave too much to interpretation. Meet in person and talk through things. People are often far more reasonable than we give them credit for. But call them out on their incorrectness in public and their guards come up. Instead, a separate one-on-one lets them lower their guards and actually listen instead of just defending their position.

Objectivity wins the day

I can’t possibly overstate the importance of keeping emotions out of the equation. We are all human; we naturally react to situations in the ways we know best. But telling everyone about our “feelings” does no good. Focus only on work-related repercussions of someone’s behaviour. So instead of telling someone, you don’t agree with their ideas, try backing your argument with the reasons why it might not work. We need to understand that even if we are accountable individuals and like to see things through to the end, conducive teamwork and delivery is everyone’s responsibility. Give people some credit for being more reasonable than you imagine, and give objective conversations a chance!

If there are no potential work-related pitfalls to reason with, then that battle is not worth fighting at that moment. It is probably your inherent nature coming into play, and if your opinion or perspective doesn’t make a difference to the end goal at that very moment, letting go is a good option.

Turf wars, much like many other forms of workplace conflict, come from the complexity of our own agendas and behaviours. Self-awareness goes a long way in keeping things simple. As soon as you see that you are tempted to battle things out for the wrong reasons, it will become that much easier to control yourself. Things, at work and in life, are only as complicated as you let them be. Turf wars too work on the same logic. The more you feed them, the worse they are going to get.


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