Sanjey found VOCA from 12 time zones away. He felt that the culture of the bank where he worked was changing. He was wondering about leaving. Someone from a startup had pitched him a role. Was his growing discomfort around the values of his firm a sign it was time to go?
Renee generally loved her job. The tension for her arose around overt pressure to take specific and public stands on various social issues. She felt genuine respect for all her colleagues. She felt she was able to work well with them regardless of whether or not she agreed on these outside-of-the-office social questions. But the pressure to conform was wearing her down.
Nathan had worked his way up over the course of his career and now found himself one step away from the C-Suite. The closer he got to the “top,” the more he disagreed with the strategic decisions the firm was making. Sometimes when he voiced his opposition to a specific approach, he felt he was penalized–ignored, not given the best assignments, bonus decreased. He wondered if he was being blacklisted or if it was just his imagination.
Every week, leaders share with me their doubts about the future. It’s not just the future of the economy, or the war, or the social fabric of America. It’s the future of their careers. They can’t shake the nagging feeling that they are not headed in the same direction as the management of their company and they don’t know what to do.
Put simply, each of these clients was dealing with the dilemma of misalignment. As the stories highlight, these situations are complex and deeply personal, with no silver bullet answer. However, in this article, we’ll explore a multi-faceted approach to answering the question: What do you do when you are at odds with your company's values, strategic priorities, or practices?
This dilemma was the fourth-most selected challenge people are facing at work in our 2021 Work Dilemmas Study and topped the list of dilemmas in our 2022 Women at Work study. The misalignment heading splits into several subgroups:
I don't support the political activism of leadership.
I don't support the lack of political activism of leadership.
My contribution and skills are not valued by leadership.
I believe the strategic direction of senior management is not in the organization’s best interest.
I feel a “boys club" culture prevents me from having an impact or advancing my career.
What do you do when you feel misaligned with the direction of your organization? To start, let’s look at four incomplete or misguided strategies for dealing with misalignment.
The following are commonly suggested strategies and coping mechanisms for when you feel out of sync at work. Each has some value yet ultimately falls short of the "true wisdom" label.
Be the Change: This notion is attributed to Gandhi–“Be the change you want to see in the world.” It may even have roots in Jesus' idea that the goal of learning is for the student to become like their teacher. It is possible to innovate and change the culture from the middle of the org chart but often unlikely. Practiced organizational consultants and executive coaches know the truth. Very little will change in an organization without the complete buy-in of senior leadership.
Run for the Hills: "Be the change" translates into “stay and make it better.” "Run for the hills" is to get out as fast as possible. If you don't agree with the leadership, then it is "better" for you to leave and find a place you agree with. We've covered this in prior posts. Our concern is this: avoiding difficulty and challenge is becoming more broadly accepted as common sense. While sometimes the wise play, other times, we learn and grow and set ourselves up for future impact by adapting to difficult situations.
Compromise: "Business is business," I've heard friends say. Translation: "Different rules apply when we are at work." We advocate an open mindset and a disposition of curiosity, particularly during the early stages of dealing with a disconnect or difference of opinion. But wisdom recognizes the need to "fear God," meaning there will be times when the values or principles of God are at odds with those of the people around us. In these scenarios, compromise is not possible.
Vent: "Get it off your chest in a safe space." This is a common practice for dealing with misalignment, yet rarely results in lasting relief, action-oriented strategies, or deeper understanding among diverse colleagues. The practice is often a euphemism for gossip, which is toxic to any high-performing team.
wisdom for misalignment
So, where does wisdom come into play as we wrestle with areas of misalignment? The book of Daniel, particularly chapters one through six, is a great resource for wrestling through a lack of sync with your leadership or company culture. Read these chapters for a masterclass on dealing with this challenge. I will refer to portions of these chapters throughout the remainder of this piece.
Use Exilic Thinking to Find Your Bearings
God-followers have found themselves at odds with people in power throughout the biblical record. Some of the richest examples of how to handle the tension with faithfulness to God AND respect to colleagues come from Daniel chapters 1-6.
When we are in an exilic environment–the minority who are seeking to know and honor God–it helps to clarify our expectations and our responsibility:
Expectations: We don't expect to "win" or take over in exilic environments. We instead hope to survive and be faithful. We expect to have some influence but know that our impact can be limited.
Responsibility: In exilic settings, we have much more responsibility to be faithful to God than we do to rescue the organization. This of course depends on where you sit in the org chart. CEO’s have more responsibility than line workers. Being grieved over corporate sins and injustice is a sign of a tender conscience, but feeling like it is up to you to change all this can cross a line. We can start to act as if we are the hero and the savior and forget who really rules and saves the world.
Know Your Red Lines
Red lines are behaviors you simply will not engage in. For Daniel, he would not eat the King's food (Daniel 1) because it was associated with the honoring of idols. Daniel would not stop praying, even though it was outlawed (Daniel 6). For his colleagues Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego (herein referred to as "The Three"), it was a refusal to bow to the statue of the King, another form of idolatry (Daniel 3).
These four had clear lines they would not cross. Each of us needs the same. Dishonesty, backstabbing, and questionable forms of client entertainment are common in specific industries. What are your lines? What temptations exist in your work world?
There is a moral world of difference between crossing a line yourself and working for a company that crosses lines. Daniel and The Three certainly didn't approve of everything that went on in the administration of the empire of Babylon, but they don't seem to comment on that. Instead, they only drew the line when the administration was forcing them to do something that compromised God's standards and their convictions.
Live Your Dependence on God
Each of our ancient compatriots was forced to live their dependence on God. Their allegiance to him made them vulnerable, and they expressed this vulnerability in prayer. They prayed for themselves and for each other. They also shared their vulnerability and dependence in community. No doubt they survived this hostile, misaligned environment through spiritual friendship.
Most of us dislike being vulnerable–we work, achieve, and form alliances to avoid this risk. Reality reminds us that much of what we lean on for our sense of security is out of our direct control. You will need God's strength and wisdom to navigate a misaligned workplace.
Divide and Conquer
Facing a conference room full of opposition is overwhelming. It’s much easier to have one-on-one conversations. Daniel demonstrates this approach in chapter 1, where he privately pulls his supervisor aside and proposes an alternative to the King's food ration. He shows excellent tact. He didn't "make a scene." He suggested a test, understanding what is at stake for his supervisor. Change Leadership always involves finding allies and showing empathy. Rather than running into a continual wall of opposition, invest in one-on-one relationships and leverage who is receptive.
Repeatedly, we see that Daniel and The Three were excellent at their craft. They were ten times better than their peers (Daniel 1:20). When Daniel's enemies wanted to find grounds to discredit him, there were none, except for his faithfulness to his religion (Daniel 6:4). Being misaligned is no excuse for half-hearted work.
The excellence of Daniel and his colleagues is an example of focusing on the work, not the drama or politics. They were great administrators. They knew the culture, the law, and the procedures. They were actually the best in the kingdom.
Celebrate the Good
In his letter to the Christ-followers of Philippi, Paul says “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8).
Many of our work cultures are mud puddles of negativity. And yet very few are absolute zeros. Celebrating the good things in your workplace will shift your influence, your mood, and the outlook of others. Avoiding black-or-white thinking isn’t about ignoring the difficulties, but seeing our work environments as they really are—grounds for God’s saving work in the world.
Speak Well of God
Daniel and his friends were not actively preaching. They were also not silent about the source of their wisdom and power. Whenever given an opportunity (chapters 2-6), they give God the credit. They do it with great respect for the King, but still give honor and glory to God.
The practice here is to speak well of God. To find ways to winsomely and casually send credit God's way is a path to faithfulness in the misaligned organization. Do this early and often. The longer we go in silence, the more apt we are to stay there.
Be Willing to Die
This is not a cheery point, yet it's still essential. Daniel and his friends frequently risked their lives to maintain their allegiance to God and to speak truth to power. This is very clear in chapters 3 and 6. "Death" for us at work usually means losing our jobs with a potential black mark on our reputation in our industry. In the way of wisdom, we know God's love and trust his plan so much that we will risk it all whenever forced to do so.
There are two ways to be willing to die.
Leave it all on the field, holding your red lines, and being honest about your faith commitments. You let the company decide what to do with you.
Self-select and move on. Sometimes we are staying not out of necessity or calling but out of fear. As experts in job and career change, we see both sides of this coin–those who leave impulsively and those who stay destructively.
engaging your own misalignment dilemma
What does engaging your own misalignment dilemma with wisdom and prudence look like? As with other dilemmas we've covered, we lean towards "staying and growing" and wisely discerning your next step, rather than a quick push for the exit. Jesus pointed out, in the parable of the wheat and weeds, that it is good for those that follow God and those that don’t to be together–it strengthens the God followers (Matthew 13). Let’s return to our three fellow travelers and see how they were made stronger through their versions of the misalignment dilemma:
Sanjey worked through the ideas of personal contribution and organizational change. With some careful work identifying his genius strengths he was able to approach these questions from a place of confidence. A strategic review of the organization's needs and clarifying conversations with his boss helped him see there was a future here. (It also helped that with a little vetting he realized the startup role was not secure and the role would be much different than anything he had ever done.) With a path forward, the misalignment feeling faded away over time, and he settled into planning for the long-term at the bank.
Renee found that the tension surrounding her, her interactions with colleagues, and the pressure to conform were constantly blocking her energy to contribute. She carefully and quietly began to look for another opportunity. As she did, she worked with her coach to grow in her cultural diagnostic skills. When she received a great offer from a more aligned firm, she took it.
Nathan realized two things: 1) The strategic differences at the firm were not directly impacting his job and, 2) He could present his ideas in a more persuasive way. As he dug into strengthening his executive presence, the sense of misalignment decreased and as did his perceived need to make a change.
Your own story may look (and end) differently, but what was true for Sanjey, Renee, and Nathan is also true for you: your misaligned work assignment won’t last forever. God wants to meet you in it with fresh lessons about life and work in his world. He also wants to provide you with the wisdom and fortitude to stay or leave with honor. He is ready and waiting to join you in these hard places. Receive what he has for you there and he will shape and mold you for the future.
Feeling out of sync with your company's direction and initiatives? Wondering if it might be time to look for something else? Download VOCA's complimentary guide, "Should I Quit My Job?" to help you decide.