Corporate Battles: Rules of Engagement

By Lain Ehmann

Rare is the company that doesn’t experience some level of conflict on a regular basis. Why? Because power struggles are inherent to business, just as they are to politics. “Most conflict occurs because that is just the nature of organizations,” says Jo Owen, a London-based management consultant and author of Management Stripped Bare: Understanding Business as It Really Is (AMACOM, 2003). “Different constituencies have different interests, and they have to get balanced out somehow,” he continues. “Competition and conflict are endemic.”

In an ideal world these tensions would be resolved civilly by the written or unwritten rules of the corporate dance, wherein the parties strive for a win-win outcome, says Owen. But this isn’t an ideal world and things often get down and dirty in the trenches. Politics, closed-door deals, two-faced colleagues or just difficult personalities might mean you find yourself involved in a clash of swords whether you like it or not. Things can get testy, particularly in sales, says Owen.

Before you hunker down and start loading muskets, Owen has a few words of advice. Don’t immediately adopt a posture of defensive hostility at the first sign of conflict. Instead, ask yourself the following questions.

Is it worth it? Don’t waste bullets – and energy – on battles that don’t matter. Save your ammunition for the big ones. Likewise, make sure you’re fighting for the good of the company and not for your ego.

Can you win? “Most battles are won and lost before they even begin because one side has already aligned its political allies far in advance to produce overwhelming force,” says Owen. Don’t engage in battle unless you’re fairly certain of the outcome. Also, remind yourself of the old adage: “If you don’t know who the fall guy is, it’s you,” says Owen.

Is there any other way of getting what you want? Pull out all your negotiation skills. Can you find that elusive win-win? A corporate battle should be your last resort.

If battle is inevitable, and you are victorious, “reach out magnanimously to the losers so they’re not enemies for life,” recommends Owen. “Always leave your opposition a graceful way out.”

And what if, despite your best efforts, you are the loser? “You have to find some creative way to turn the debacle into a victory and move on,” says Owen. Hopefully your opponent is operating under the same principles and will allow you that graceful exit.

For more information, please contact Jo Owen at