Eventually it happens to all of us when we enter a new organization. Sometimes it takes a few years. Sometimes a few months. For the least fortunate among us, only a few weeks. I’m talking about the waving of a red flag signaling our first WTF experience in our workplace. It’s usually accompanied by a feeling that might appear like this:
We all deal with irritants in our work. The sometimes gnarly commute. The copier that seems to drink ink like a pirate drinks rum. The volunteer who consistently runs late for their shift. You get the picture. But I’m not talking those daily annoyances. They’re just the cost of getting out of bed each morning and going to work in a nonprofit.
I’m talking about those experiences that stoke your sense that something isn’t right about your workplace. You might say those are also a cost of working in a nonprofit (or really any job) and you would be largely correct. Since an organization is made up of people, they’re just as imperfect and flawed as you and I are. Usually, we can choose to look beyond these flaws because we can accept them as we might accept our own flaws.
However, sometimes these flaws turn into something darker and more troubling. They violate a core value. Or perhaps a couple of core values which starts to feel intolerable. Or finally they violate so many of our core values that the environment becomes toxic and affects our wellbeing. It’s time to start looking for a new place to take our skills, talents, and passion ASAP.
But how can you be certain you won’t simply walk out of one insane asylum into another? I did it twice in one year and it was disastrous to my mental and physical health.
The key is to get curious about your current experience and learn to identify exactly what sucks. How? I’d like to suggest an exercise you can begin right now.
The first step is to identify and get cozy with your core values. Everything hinges on this because if something has deeply upset you, it’s likely because it violated one of your core values. If you’re unsure or simply want to do some reconnecting work with yourself, there are several sources that can help. Here’s a brief listing of resources which have helped me:
Now grab a sheet of paper or crack open Word. (Personally, I like using a cloud app like Microsoft OneNote so I always have access to the document on my phone and iPad.) You’re going to create a map with at least four columns:
- Current Challenging Experience
- Violated Core Value
- Intensity of Feeling
- Questions to Help Uncover
Step 1. Current Challenging Experience
So what’s pissing you off enough right now that you’re actually taking time to do this exercise? What’s happening that is making you to want to run off and sell coconuts along a beach in Tahiti or start an angora rabbit ranch in West Virginia?
For illustration, let’s say a someone in leadership is constantly abrasive and condescending to you and your staff. They have no problems throwing around insults in public meetings. Your challenging experience might be: A Board Member is consistently rude to me and my staff.
Step 2. Violated Core Value
You know your core values. Now see if you can connect that value that’s been violated to the experience.
In our example, we might feel that our value of Respect has been violated.
Step 3. Intensity
This is highly subjective, but can help prioritize which experiences are irritants, which ones you can deal with, and which ones are true value violations.
Respect (at least for me) is one of those top three values so this isn’t an irritant or something you feel mildly. The intensity is High.
Step 4. Questions
Now comes the difficult part but it is a significant reason why you’re going through this exercise. Ask yourself: If interviewing for my current position today, what questions could I ask that would give me insight into my challenging experience? What we’re trying to do here is reverse engineer the experience and identify the burning red flags from our current workplace to check if they’re present in this next possible workplace.
Some questions to ask in your next interview might be:
- What’s the current relationship between the Board and staff?
- Are there any Board members who I should work with differently?
- In terms of how the Board governs, would you say it’s more Advisory, Co-operative, or Managing?
Putting It Together
Your map should look something like this:
|Challenging Experience||Violated Core Value||Intensity||Questions to Help Learn|
|A board member is consistently rude to me and my staff||Respect||High||
Keep adding rows of experiences as they arise. And keep adding, reviewing, and refining it. Test drive it when talking to peers inside your organization or friends who work somewhere else.
And when you have an interview and get to put this to work, don’t forget to watch for body language when asking questions. While an interviewer might try to hide what they really think through their words, their nonverbal will likely betray their feelings.
Anything I’ve missed here? Thoughts on improvement? I’m always refining my own map so feel free to share in comments or shoot me a personal message. I’d love to hear how this works for you. Good luck!