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When Your Values Conflict With Work

Work can erode your resilience is your personal values conflict with the work you do. Follow these tips if you're struggling to reconcile your values with your work.

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In 2003, I opened the Office of the U.S. Consul in Baghdad to assist private American citizens living and working in Iraq. I disagreed with the decision to invade Iraq but thought I could have a positive impact on how the U.S. government proceeded post-invasion. I was wrong. I arrived soon after the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the legal entity that governed Iraq for one year. In theory, it was a coalition of various countries, but in reality, the United States was in charge. We were awful occupiers. Iraqis would come to my office because they could not access the CPA headquarters. They asked me for help reporting crimes to non-existent police, finding family members abducted/arrested the night before by unknown American assailants, and getting out of their country because their lives were in danger.

For the first time in my life, I struggled to reconcile my job with my values and morals. In retrospect, I realize that I should have considered curtailing from the assignment when I first realized the disconnect between my values and reality on the ground, but my sense of commitment was too strong. It never occurred to me to leave. I kept hoping that what I witnessed was just an anomaly. The U.S. government couldn’t be this bad; it must get better. I thought I could still do a little good by staying. Unfortunately, this disconnect contributed to my development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After my hotel was hit by rockets, I would ruminate over whether our efforts in Iraq were worth the risks I was taking. If I died, would my death be meaningless?

Part of my recovery from PTSD was going back and finding a way to feel comfortable with my role as a U.S. government official during the occupation. I did so by reframing my purpose – I was there to assist and protect American citizens and did the best I could. I was not responsible for the counterproductive and harmful actions of other U.S. government officials. I had to work through my survivor guilt. Why did I escape physical injury while others lost limbs and lives? Why didn’t I quit and go public about the wrongs I was witnessing? Could I have done more to help people? I realized that I still had to find meaning and purpose from my experience in Iraq if I wanted to leave the year behind and move on.

As I discovered the powerful effect meaning and purpose have on an individual’s resilience, I realized that I had lost meaning in my work when I witnessed U.S. government leaders engaged in actions that I found to be morally offensive. Once I found meaning, even retroactively, I became more resilient. I realized that even if we find meaning and purpose outside work, the lack of it at work will still erode our resilience pretty quickly. Here are some tips for finding meaning and purpose at work if you have a conflict between your work and personal values:

Clarify the conflict. Do you disagree with the organization’s policy or do you believe that the policy is harmful or immoral? It is easier to reconcile disagreements than it is to work on something that conflicts with your core values is much harder.

Search for meaning, no matter how small. If you disagree with your office’s mission, are there other parts of your work that give you meaning? For example, do you derive meaning from helping your colleagues, learning new skills, or trying to minimize the negative impact of the mission?

Think about your role. Consider what role you play in the organization and the impact you may or may not have on important decisions. Are you responsible for the actions of leadership? Can you impact the direction of the organization? Are you having a positive or negative impact?

Stay in control. If office goals or actions conflict with your core values, make a conscious decision about whether you will stay in that position or remain with the organization. Weigh the pros and cons of each choice, factoring in the negative impact of working against core values. Explore your options. Can you move to another position in the organization? Can you take time off either by doing a detail, long-term training or leave without pay? There is no right or wrong decision, but making a decision will give you back some control over the situation.

Find social support. Reach out to like-minded people with whom you can talk through the disconnect and who can help you frame what is happening and explore possible responses. It is hard to work through these conflicts by yourself.

Have you worked in an organization that conflicts with your core values? How did you respond?

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