Itching For A Fight

Itching for a fight

The two boys wouldn’t stop taunting me.

I was in Grade 9, and it was my third day of high school. An experience equal parts novelty and anxiety.

Having just immigrated to a new country didn’t make things easier. Our parents, busy with a life-changing move, had left me and my sister to our own devices.

Thankfully, the system was straightforward. There was a decent school nearby. The immigration officials gave us the school placement papers, which we handed over at the principal’s office.

We then did a few aptitude tests, and a guidance counselor used the results to put together a class schedule. A few hours later, I was sitting in a Grade 9 keyboarding class, learning to touch type.

And now, this. I wasn’t a small kid, and I didn’t lack confidence.  And yet, the two boys, each of them bigger and taller than me, somehow decided I was a convenient target for bullying.

The teacher, fresh out of college, noticed – but did nothing.  The boys, emboldened, kept on going – and others soon joined in.

A few days later, fed up and realizing things were only going to get worse, I did the only sensible thing that came to mind.

Walking to my next class, I spotted one of my tormentors next to his locker. I walked over, tapped him on the shoulder – and punched him right in the face.

I managed to get a few more deeply satisfying ones in before I realized he wasn’t fighting back. Then, a geography teacher pulled me away – and fifteen minutes later I was back in the principal’s office.

Taking A Stand

Despite the threats, no one was actually going to expel me. In an immigrant neighbourhood, a school with that kind of policy would quickly run out of students – and funding.

But to this day, I recall the frustration of dealing with the principal – and all the teachers who piled into her office to tell me how wrong I was.

Everyone was quick to tell me that fighting is wrong. That there are better ways to resolve arguments.

Well, my ears were open.  Interestingly, no one followed up with any specific advice.

Even more interestingly, word traveled quickly – and no one at the school ever bullied me again. Funny how that works.

Looking back, that high school incident doesn’t exactly fill me with pride. I’m not a brawler by nature and even in my teenage, hormone-filled years, I was never one to go after others.

But if there’s one rule that served me well in my life it’s that shying away from conflict is never a good idea.

Mercury Rising

The good news is that the older we get, the less likely we are to engage in physical altercations to sort things out.

However, that doesn’t mean that you won’t find yourself with a fight on your hands. On the contrary, the higher you rise in your career, the more conflict-filled your days are likely to become.

After all, one of the fundamental traits of human nature is the desire to maximize our own utility. At the same time, we live in a world characterized by scarcity of resources.

Good jobs are disappearing. Bonus pools are limited in nature. Promotions are hard to come by.

In other words, it’s just a matter of time before you get in someone else’s way.  And if you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will.

In investment banking, it starts innocuously enough.

Junior bankers call up their staffer and ask to be put on the best deals – or refuse to take on the painful projects. Inevitably, the ones who don’t raise a stink will likely end up getting the short end of the stick.

At a more senior level, bankers spend a big chunk of their time fighting for the best junior resources.

Unfortunately, stepping “down” only goes so far. A good analyst or associate can make a world of a difference on a deal, leaving you with enough free time to go after new business (or get some sleep).

And at the very senior level, behind closed doors, conflicts play out every day.

Rising stars suddenly get in the way of their formerly supportive bosses. Senior bankers angle for one-on-one conversations with important clients.

Candidates win promotions – and swiftly move to neutralize everyone else who had their eyes set on the same job.

And often, it is the banks themselves who encourage conflict.  For example, Deutsche Bank (before its spectacular flame-out) had a well-known policy of encouraging “co-opetition”.

Sometimes that would mean letting multiple teams go after the same business.  In other situations, they would appoint two “co-heads” for the same business and let them fight it out.

Incidentally, the latter practice proved to be so effective that it was later adopted by many of the other big banks on the street.

Cutting Off Oxygen

Back when I was a junior VP, I had to serve out a year as a staffer for our team.

For the uninitiated, it’s a bit of a rite of passage for mid-level bankers. Basically, you are the person allocating analysts and associates for every single project.

Given that banks are always short-staffed, being a staffer is a very time-consuming and painful addition to the day job (somewhat offset by the ability to get the best juniors on your own deals).

What made my situation even worse was that one of the senior directors on the team (let’s call him Mike) really had it in for me.

For reasons still unbeknownst to me, Mike never missed an opportunity to send an email to the group head (with a few MDs in copy), highlighting yet another perceived shortcoming on my behalf.

Perhaps he thought I will try to placate him by giving him the best juniors. Perhaps he was just stressed out (his promotion prospects didn’t look too good).

Most likely, he was just another asshole, trying to elevate himself in the internal pecking order.

Unfortunately for Mike, my wife and I just had our first child. Between the sleepless nights at home and a full slate at work, I just didn’t have the time or the patience to bend over backwards for him for the next twelve months.

So instead, I made a point of giving him the worst possible juniors every single time.

Big RFP? Here’s a new analyst and a freshly minted MBA associate. Tough sponsor buyside deal? A couple of bottom performers coming right up.

And sometimes, I would intentionally drag my feet and not allocate resources for days, claiming our juniors were too stretched on other projects.

I knew I was taking a risk. Before long, Mike was in the group head’s office, asking for my staffing responsibilities to be taken away.

It was just too bad that his argument didn’t quite stack up. When the group head asked around, he realized that everyone else was delighted with the job I was doing.

No surprise there – I made sure to keep the team happy by giving them Mike’s resources.

As a result, I stayed on as the staffer – and Mike was up the proverbial shit creek with no paddle. Realizing he needed to make peace, he shut up. The complaints disappeared. A few weeks later, Mike started getting some decent juniors.

We had an understanding – and for the rest of my tenure, I did not hear from Mike again.

The Efficacy Of Conflict

One reason for all the corporate in-fighting that’s going on is that the people who rise to the top tend to have confident, aggressive personalities.

More importantly, however, it’s because those same people have figured out a way to use conflict to their advantage.

In one of my favourite books, Jeffrey Pfeffer sums it up nicely:

There are lots of books and quite a bit empirical research on the detrimental effects of workplace bullying – the screaming, ranting, profanity, and carrying on that sometimes occur in workplaces – on both the people who are the targets and the organizations in which they work.

So why does such behaviour persist?

Because it is often extremely effective for the perpetrator.

Jeffrey goes on to explain:

Because most people are conflict-averse, they avoid difficult situations and difficult people, frequently acceding to requests or changing their positions rather than paying the emotional price of standing up for themselves and their views.

If you can handle difficult conflict- and stress-filled situations effectively, you have an advantage over most people.

Put another way, bullying others into submission is not a pre-requisite for success. But sooner or later, you’ll come across people who will try to bully you to get their way.

And when it happens, you shouldn’t back away from a fight.  Your interests are worth fighting for.

Thank you for reading!

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Banker On FIRE is a London-based M&A (mergers and acquisitions) investment banker.  I am passionate about capital markets, behavioural economics, financial independence and living the best life possible.

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15 Comments

    • Thanks Joe. Interestingly, no one ever talks about these things in the workplace – and yet we all know conflicts play out on a daily basis.

  1. Incredible read. I am finding myself in a lot of conflict at work these days which is new to me, and this advice couldn’t have come at a better time. Thank you for sharing!

    • Great to hear Abel (not about the conflict, but that the advice comes in handy).

      Even if you lose a fight, others will know that you are willing to stand up for yourself and will be unlikely to pick on you again.

      Good luck!

  2. Great post which is very relevant to the industry which I work in.
    I work in a traditionally macho and very adversarial industry, both internally and externally. I’m in a mid level position and still slowly progressing up the ranks.

    As I’ve moved up the ranks to a now mid level position I’ve increasingly noticed that the top operators within our organisation are very skilled at handling conflict. Snubbing out disputes before they escalate, keeping threats at arms length and positioning themselves so that they are above the muck and bullets.

    • Indeed, I’ve noticed the same in banking. Then there’s the old trick of having someone else fight your battles while you retain your political capital for the next conflict.

      As you say, the higher you rise, the more conflict you will likely experience / need to handle.

      • Haha – Yes having someone else fight your battles certainly chimes a chord. I can think of a few individuals I’ve come across that effectively have a barking dog on a lead within their function that they use to fend off lower level threats.

        I’m reading The Snowball at the moment and Buffets approach to conflict is interesting. Building on for the above having a strong gatekeeper as an assistant is very wise move although a little more subtle than the old fashioned muscle!

        • What do you make of the book? Recommend a read?

          Fully agree on the gatekeeper. My PA has been awesome at protecting my calendar and more generally deflecting many of the meetings / initiatives I don’t want to be a part of (but don’t want to make it explicit)

          Can be a very synergistic relationship if you acknowledge the said gatekeeper will upset a lot of people but have the power to protect him / her

          • I absolutely agree on the merits of a good PA. I think its a role which may be widely undervalued.

            The book’s interesting but isn’t really surprising. There’s a lot of detail about his life as you would expect from a biography but I’m not finding it particularly insightful.

  3. A good article. It’s such a relief to know that it’s not just me that encounters this [email protected] / hassle. The stress of these experiences is a big motivation for my pursuit of FIRE – and, on the flip side, pursuing FIRE really helps reduce that stress.

    • You are not. I have had jobs where it literally felt like hand to hand combat every single day.

      I don’t mind a fight but it does get tiring after a while. Thankfully it’s a bit more manageable in my current role but I know that my direct manager (a relatively senior banker) spends a big chunk of his time protecting his turf (and to his credit his people as well).

  4. Great post, I wish the times I stood up for myself as a kid they hadn’t hit back! They weren’t many but they were a tad painful as I recall.
    The Chimp Paradox has helped me, taught me to manage my inner chimp. I use this book when I teach & coach younger colleagues now.
    My profession is stressful and dynamic (at times), so can push individuals to the extreme. Knowing and understanding your inner chimp is invaluable.
    Or, I have found it to be so.
    Work place conflict has been a fact of life during my 25 year career some I have handled well, some poorly. Live and learn, strive to do better the next time.
    I don’t have a PA, but I have found empowering deputies to act on my behalf with full authority and support to be an excellent s**t shield.

    • That’s a good analogy.

      I’ve not read the book but am very aware I have an inner chimp as well (like everyone else) that happens to react in his own ways at times of stress/pressure.

  5. Your story reminded me of my first day at high school – a boy called me a racist name and I was so shocked that I punched him. I only realised how much bigger he was than me when he had me pinned up against a tree but luckily, his older sister put a stop to anything happening further. I never had any problem from him again. Unfortunately, I did suffer from some bullying later on in my school life (non-racist but the hurtful kind that girls inflict on other girls) but I can’t say it had any lasting effects on me, except that if I see bullying happening now (particularly in the workplace), I’m not afraid to say something or report it.

    During the early days of my career, I often waded into office politics (one director called me a ‘trouble maker’!) but these days, although I’m not afraid to say no to people, I shy away from conflict, unless something was going to affect me directly.

    At my age, I just don’t have the energy for it any more, can’t be doing with the stress and don’t want to rock the boat!

    Anyway, another +1 for the Chimp Paradox.

    • Yeah, I certainly stay away from conflict unless it impacts me.

      That being said, in situations where I am affected, I’ve found it much more effective to nip it in the bud, even at the cost of some discomfort.

      Unfortunately, if you yield, most people will take it as a sign that they can continue taking advantage of you. But then perhaps it’s just my industry!

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