Avoid office clashes by knowing your own turf

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 January, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 January, 1994, 12:00am

NOTHING brings out the more primitive instincts in relatively sophisticated human beings more quickly than a ''turf war''. If you've been in the workplace longer than a week you've surely witnessed this peculiar form of struggle.

An employee covets another colleague's stationery or computer or sofa or assistant or window or job (it could be anything) and suddenly the two of them are at war, zealously manoeuvring through the organisation, lining up allies, fortifying their positions, so they can protect or seize what they feel they rightly deserve.

As an employer I'm not insensitive to turf wars. They come with the territory.

There will always be some employees who are inordinately ambitious (and perhaps grasping), and are willing to feed this ambition at the expense of others.

But I try to remove myself as far as possible from the struggle, in part because I believe turf wars are more often displays of people's insecurities than anything substantive.

If a person is secure in his job, knows what he's doing, and likes it, the chances are turf is not a life-or-death issue to him - and people tend to leave him alone.

That's an enviable position to be in. The way to get there is to define your turf before it defines you.

First, you have to know precisely what your turf is.

On the surface, turf is the work that you, and you alone, do. It's the niche you've carved out for yourself in the company.

It's the people who report to you. It's the relationships you feel you can count on.

In short, turf is anything and everything that matters to you, the loss of which would make you feel somehow diminished.

Ask people what they do for a living or, better yet, how they're doing at it, and you'll learn a lot about their notion of turf.

You can hear it in the terms they use to define their job.

Here are seven kinds of turf.

Sales turf. Ask a salesman how he's doing and he'll most likely describe his biggest deals. That's his turf - generating revenue.

You could do almost anything to this employee as long as it did not impede his ability to sell.

People turf. This is the domain of the manager and would-be empire builder.

It's the executive who defines his job - and success - by the number of people reporting to him. It's a sales manager who is more proud of the size of his sales force than the sales they generate.

People, not deals, have become his turf. Don't even think about trying to snatch a piece of his burgeoning empire.

Political turf. This is the province of people who value their internal relationships and are not ashamed to let you know they have friends in high places.

They are masters at forging and exploiting these intramural alliances.

Challenge this type of individual and you may have several people to deal with.

Title turf. These are the people who define themselves by where they are positioned on the corporate ladder.

What's most important to them is the title on their business card and the assurance that none of their perceived peers has passed them by.

(Note also meeting turf, the specialty of those who define themselves by their presence at meetings, committees, and task forces.

Watch how these folks react when they are excluded from a meeting they regularly attend.) External turf. This is the turf surrounding your relationships outside the company, particularly your customers and friends.

If I had to choose, I'd say this is the turf of which I'm most protective, because the relationships I've developed over the years are valuable to me and they are most vulnerable to my associates' abuse without any of us intending or realising it.

Paper turf. These are the bean counters and computer experts who thrive on pushing paper and generating data.

Not for them the intrigues of deal-making, empire building, and internal politicking.

But watch out if you challenge their control of company information. They can be ruthlessly defensive.

Extracurricular turf. Then there are the folks whose dreams extend beyond the company - to their family, their community, and other outside interests.

Their hearts may be in their work from nine to five, but don't bother trying to stretch them beyond those hours.

This list is hardly exhaustive. But perhaps somewhere in here is the turf you call your own.

Once you identify the turf that's important to you, it's a lot easier to know what you're fighting for.

Turf is one area where you should take your cues from politicians.

The most successful legislators know that they can't - and don't have a right to - win every fight.

So they stake out their turf carefully - it could be a campaign promise, a specific piece of legislation, a sub-committee they chair, a tax break for their constituents - and jealously protect it.

In effect, they are telling the world: ''I need this. You can have the rest.'' If you follow this approach in the workplace, you'll find yourself spending more time working on the things that matter - and less time putting out fires.

Naturally, paying attention to other people's concept of turf can also be worthwhile.

A few years ago a company we dealt with was going through a wrenching re-organisation.

The Chief Executive Officer there agonised for weeks about telling one of his most creative people - a senior executive who had done so well in product development that he was put in charge of sales and marketing - that he was about to be stripped of the latter division.

Much to the CEO's surprise, the senior executive was delighted by the move.

''I've never really understood the sales group,'' the employee explained. ''But I'd work on new products for free.'' Product development, it turned out, was his turf.

The rest was real estate in the wrong neighbourhood.