I was recently talking with a friend, we’ll call her Tabby, who was struggling with a significant career decision. She was hired to be an agent of change in a well-established organization. But was being reprimanded for the very thing she was tasked with doing.
“I just don’t know what I should do,” Tabby lamented. “I really believe in this work. Walking away feels out of alignment with my values. This is a fight I want to fight.”
The problem was, the stress and harm she was enduring was negatively impacting her life. But Tabby also didn’t want to be intimidated by them because that’s what they have done to numerous people before her.
And what she was bearing witness to wasn’t just a hostile work environment. It was corruption at an insidious level.
Choosing whether or not to be a whistle-blower is no small feat.
I have another friend, let’s call her Cathy, who was told directly by a board member hiring for an executive position that she would never get the job because she’s a woman.
Without a doubt, she had a case she could have pursued. But it would have ended her career, as was evidenced by the whistle-blowers that came before her in her industry.
And Cathy firmly believes that she could effect greater positive change from within institutions like the one she worked at.
So she pursued and secured an executive-level position at a different organization. Still being the agent of change but taking a more subtle approach. One that enabled her to stand in a position of power and authority.
There is often a tension between an expressed desire for change and engaging in the work of change.
Change can feel threatening. It is, by its very nature, a break from the status quo. And lends itself to uncertainty. These two components, deviating from what's normal into the great unknown, can trigger reactions rooted in fear.
What if worries become convoluted as indisputable facts, which makes it harder to see things from the breadth of perspectives involved. This leads to greater positional entrenchment and less openness to being influenced by others. All of which stimies change efforts.
In my professional experiences, when someone resists change with ferocity it is because they feel certain they stand to lose a lot. Often times these fears can be mitigated by creating space for them to be expressed and addressed.
When that happens, when people feel seen and heard, validated and supported, they are more willing to be open to influence. That is, unless there's a mitigating circumstance.
When people are engaging in unethical or downright illegal behavior they will resist change as a matter of self-preservation. This is especially true when methods of accountability are being introduced where before there was none.
But, it can be hard to know if that resistance is due to a general sense of loss or a deeper fear of being found out and reprimanded.
One way to discern the difference is by paying attention to the nature of your conversations together.
I had a client that was fostering a more collaborative work environment after her team had been operating in silos for years. She had one employee in particular that was consistently throwing up roadblocks around these changes.
When I worked with this individual she was always talking in circles. Nothing was ever her fault, others were to blame for all the issues she encountered and she was just trying her best to help. On top of that, there was a myriad of excuses for why none of the solutions we explored could work - according to her it was an unsolvable problem.
It turned out, she was desperately trying to cover her tracks. And once the truth was discovered, it was clear she was not ever going to agree to the changes because they required ethics she lacked. So it was best to terminate her employment.
Wholehearted leaders mindfully navigate situations where there's dueling values. They move beyond black and white thinking to look at the greater context surrounding their efforts. Staying grounded, they both consider other perspectives while remaining deeply aware of their own thoughts and feelings on the subject. Consciously approaching the situation from a pragmatic, curious and caring place is crucial because there are rarely easy or obvious answers in these challenging situations.
My client was lucky she could terminate her employee. But when the people making questionable and even downright illegal decisions are above you, the power differential significantly limits your sphere of control. This is where a deep understanding of personal values and clear boundaries come into play. It is also why gaining outside, objective and informed perspectives is so helpful.
My friend Tabby is still figuring out how she'll handle this situation. She has relied on insights from her lawyer to help inform what she does next. This not only helps her experience a level of protection, it also ensures she takes more calculated risks. After all, just because someone has witnessed ethical breaches doesn't mean you have the evidence needed to meet the burden of proof that a crime was committed.
We don't always get to influence broader change in the ways we would like. But we can decide how and where we show up. And I don't think any of us have the right to judge when someone decides to engage for the fight versus walking away - these are very hard and personal decisions with real consequences. Only the individual faced with a dilemma of dueling values can choose how to proceed.
If that's you, take a deep breath, go for a walk, seek counsel, journal, do whatever you can to create the space to make a mindful, well-informed decision. Trust yourself. Show yourself compassion. And commit to the choice you make.
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