I’ve been meaning to write this post for several months (I referred to it two months ago over on Livejournal, so it’s older than that). It’s basically an exploration of how to deal with the situation where one’s personal values do not correspond to the values of an organization to which one belongs. I started thinking along those lines when I was going through a rough spot at work, but I think it’s more broadly relevant, especially in light of what us liberals are going through after the election last week, where we love America but don’t really like what it seems to stand for these days.

Here are my thoughts on several strategies one can use to cope with the situation (whether at work or in politics or in life):

  1. Suck it up. Subjugate one’s personal values to those of the organization. These are the people who take the game as it’s currently constructed and aim to win it under those rules, no matter how stupid the rules are. These are the people who climb the corporate ladder, kowtowing to those above them, and accumulating people below them to expand their empire. It’s also the way the conservatives have decided to play electoral politics. Since the system is flawed and voters are swayed by media, they take advantage of it to cement their political standing. Obviously, I don’t agree with this approach. I especially don’t like it because of my tendency to question the assumptions in any system.
  2. Leave. Join a new organization. Quit your job, and find another company. Or, in the case of the election, move to Canada. There are some cases where this is necessary, where the organization is too far gone and there’s nothing you can do to pull it back. But it’s cowardly. It’s walking away.
    1. A variant of this one is mentally checking out. This is where you’re still there physically, but you don’t care any more. You’ll do what is asked of you grudgingly, but you’ll do the minimum necessary to get by. It’s not quite walking out the door, but it’s close.
    2. Another variant is withdrawal. I see this as being a particularly tempting one in light of the election. Let’s just withdraw to our enclaves in San Francisco and Boston and New York and leave the rest of the country to rot. I can’t really argue with this one because it’s basically what I’ve done. But I feel like I want to make an attempt at an outreach effort to expand the enclaves. It may be pointless. And this energy may only last a couple weeks. But for now, that’s the direction I’m going.
  3. Cause trouble. Make a ruckus. When asked to do something that you feel is wrong, kick and scream wildly and make sure everybody knows that you hold yourself morally superior to the person that gave you the order. This is pretty satisfying in the short term, but clearly unproductive in the long term. It doesn’t convince anybody to change their behavior, and, in fact, entrenches them in their ways to avoid giving you any satisfaction whatsoever. I’m speaking from personal experience, of course. I see this as what the anti-war protesters are doing. All it does is convince the other side that we have no basis for our position, because our only method of defending it is inarticulate ranting and raving.
  4. Defend your position. This can go a couple ways.
    1. The less productive way is the one where you try to pick apart your opponent’s stated reasons. The appropriate analogy would be to the endless discussions on usenet where people would make line-by-line rebuttals to other posters. Tiring and annoying for anybody but the pedants. Unfortunately, this seems to be the way chosen by many Democrats after the election – an example is the trying to get religious conservatives to reconcile their “pro-life” position on abortion with their support of the death penalty. Other good examples are in the comments on this post by a Bush voter. It’s missing the forest for the trees.
    2. The more productive way is the one where you try to understand your opponent’s worldview. What are their overarching concerns? What motivates them? Only when you can put yourself in their mindset can you figure out what arguments might convince them. Lakoff’s work takes this approach and I think it’s the way to go. As a side note, this is also the way UI and application design should be done – start with the overall goal and work backwards rather than start with the technical details and work forward. Unfortunately, most project managers would disagree. But I digress.
  5. Set an example. Live your life the way you think it should be lived. This is somewhat inspired by reading about Martin Luther King and the tactics of non-violence. His vision and his unwillingness to knuckle under to how other people thought he should behave set an example that all could follow. A less glorious example is one described by Joel Spolsky, on how to make your working environment as a programmer better, by properly running things for yourself and letting others see you as being more productive. The idea is to set such a good example that others will strive to emulate you. It’s hard. It’s like being a saint. But it’s probably the most effective method of conversion. When I was a kid the Christians that impressed me most were not the ones who were loud and active in their faith, spreading the gospel and trying to convert everybody. It was the ones who quietly lived their life in Christ. If you asked them, they would share their faith, so it wasn’t as if they were hiding it. It was just part of who they were. And that sort of quiet dignity was far more persuasive than any rhetoric could ever be. This is sort of a variant of #2b, without the bitterness.

None of these strategies are original or anything, of course. But I’ve found that it’s been helpful for me to mentally lay them out and think about which one I am using in a given situation. And just the process of enumerating them has helped me to recognize some of the more unproductive ways in which I deal with exasperating situations where I am feeling excluded and unrepresented. Admitting you have a problem is the first step and all that (speaking of which, one of the other backlogged posts is an examination of why truth is often expressed in banal aphorisms). At work, I was originally using response #3, and have since lapsed into #2a. Part of the goal of writing this up is to help inspire myself to aim for #5 in the office.

As far as the political situation in America goes, I feel like I should aim for #5 and #4b. #4b is part of what is inspiring this goal of writing more. We’ll see how long that lasts. I don’t have the patience of a saint unfortunately. Or the work ethic. 🙂