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Office Politics


Exhibit and event professionals are no strangers to conflict. But is arguing such a bad thing?
Many are relieved to see that this year's election cycle has come to an end. And regardless of which side of the aisle you occupied during the campaign season – or if you hunkered down somewhere in the middle – most can agree that this election was hard-fought, ugly, and divisive. While character flaws and personality traits took center stage, substance and policy issues appeared to fade into the background. Respectful debates devolved into outright arguments, and the anxiety of the election trickled into our daily lives, driving political wedges between friends, family members, and co-workers.

So it should come as no surprise that our workplaces, too, have become battlegrounds, where fuses are short and tensions run high. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, election-fueled anxiety has contributed to an increase in office hostility and a decrease in productivity. According to author and consultant Jeanne Meister, who is on the Kronos Workforce Institute board of directors, this emotionally charged campaign has contributed to an emotionally charged workplace. And just because the votes have been cast, that tension is unlikely to dissipate instantaneously.

But office politics are nothing new, and exhibit and event professionals are no strangers to conflict. From procurement to public relations, most trade show programs have more internal stakeholders than this election cycle had scandals. Department heads all want top billing for their products, every budgetary blip must be justified and rejustified, staffers throw a fit no matter which booth uniforms you choose, and if everyone got their way, your graphics would suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Conflict is, it appears, par for the professional course, whether on the campaign trail or inside the board room.

But is arguing such a bad thing? Confrontation is uncomfortable, and I'm sure that we've all fantasized about a perfect world where we always get our way, but I believe that – in the majority of exhibit-related cases – a little bickering begets better booths. Paradoxically, even seemingly counterproductive disputes can, ultimately, provide clarity of each others' wants, needs, and perspectives, but only if you're able to depersonalize the discussion and honestly digest the dialogue.

"Conflict is a normal part of human interaction, and no amount of happy thoughts can change it," writes Dr. Eric J. Romero, Ph.D., who defends conflict in the workplace by adding, "If everyone thinks the same, the result is a lack of diverse ideas. In such an environment, creativity is unlikely." In fact, according to Romero, if nobody's arguing in your company, something is probably wrong.

Early in my career at EXHIBITOR, founder Lee Knight apologized for an argument we'd had during an editorial meeting. But the apology was unnecessary. I appreciated the fact that we were allowed to have it out every once in a while. After all, expressing your opinion, arguing about it, and walking away still able to complete the project amicably is a skill, not a sin. Projects might take longer, and there will be blood, but the work will often benefit.

Having said that, you can't debate indefinitely. Sooner or later, you do need to reach consensus – or concede defeat – and move on, because those graphics aren't going to produce themselves, and employees can't staff your booth in the nude. But rather than avoiding touchy subjects, I encourage you to embrace arguments for what they're worth. Conflict, by its very nature, implies interest amongst those involved, as people don't generally fight for things about which they're ambivalent. So as long as you and your teammates remember that you're all on the same team, fighting for the common good (whether you realize it or not), you will eventually win the war – at which point you can quibble over the spoils. E


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