Career Q&A: True to Values
Updated: May 15
This post was co-written by Mel Butcher and Dr. Robert Zeitlin.
After a recent talk I (Mel) gave about career mentorship and sponsorship, there was a Q&A period. A young man shared the following (paraphrasing):
"I'm early in my career and I've run into some uncomfortable experiences with people whose values don't align with mine. I've alienated myself from people in my industry when I spoke up before, and also encountered situations where I didn't feel comfortable speaking up due to the power dynamic. When we encounter something like racism or sexism in the workplace, how can we stay true to our values without alienating ourselves from colleagues?"
I shared this with my dear friend Robert and, to my surprise, he'd found himself having several similar conversations recently. He kindly suggested that we co-write a piece. Here is our current best effort to answer this young professional's query.
This is a deep question. We believe that most professionals have encountered this in their careers at some point, possibly many times.
We know we can't control other people. The only thing we can do is choose our own actions, to choose how we respond to the world.
When we're young, it can seem as though most things are, or at least should be, black and white.
It should be easy to deliver a biting, poignant judgment to put the other person - the bad person - the wrong person - in their place. Right?
As we've gotten older and encountered more and more situations, we've learned that it's seldom that clear.
Life is full of nuance.
People are complicated emotional creatures, every one of us with our own ebbing desires, motivators, hopes, ambitions, and dreams.
What does all of this mean for this young man's provoking question?
It means that we can never fully know the heart and mind of the other person; we can only know our own. Ask yourself:
Do I care about the outcome?
If the answer is yes, then we should understand this: seemingly heroic "mic drop" moments rarely exist anywhere other than our imaginations.
When has someone one-upping you or putting you "in your place", whether publicly, among a small group, or online, done anything more than caused you to dislike the other person?
Those type of call-outs rarely result in the outcome we're alluding to here, which is to create a world that's less sexist, racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic...
If you damage your ability to stay in a space, a company, an industry... you give up your position. If you stay, however, you retain power to cultivate change over the long-term. Sometimes, when we want to stand up for ourselves or others, we feel we don't have the power, or the authority to do so. This might be especially true when we want to tell someone substantially senior to us how wrong they are. We may feel we don't have a voice or that our voice doesn't matter.
In those moments, we have to make difficult choices.
Maybe you're willing to simply speak up and deal with the consequences; that doesn't require much premeditation.
Maybe you choose to play the long game. That might mean there's no outburst, but that you lead by example deliberately over time.
In the end, Robert and I can't make a judgement call about the action you choose. All we can say is - a thoughtful choice that moves you and others towards the outcome of a better, more equitable world is probably a good choice.
And there are likely multiple ways, in any given situation, to be true to our values.