How to know when to leave your organization for its culture

Organizational cultures are fascinating social structures. Even if no one pays attention to building a culture, it is still there. There are famous examples of organizations with someone at the top strongly influencing the culture, like Apple. But many other organizations have cultures just as strong. It keeps evolving organically, influenced by situations, profitability, specific individuals, geographical area, and many other factors.

Feeling at home in an organization highly depends on the organizational culture. Sometimes you know about the culture before you join. But more often you will find out after you started to work there. And sometimes, it can be a reason to leave. It is extremely hard to know if, and when, you should quit. You like (at least several of) your colleagues, you like the job you do, you like the clients you work with, or the projects or product you work on. Should you leave, just because you don’t like certain elements of your organization’s culture? I’m definitely not advocating you should leave after the first incident you don’t like. Just as you don’t leave a relationship after the first fight. But you’re too late when you are fired for not fitting in, or sitting at home with a burnout…

It is often difficult to recognize whether you and the organization are not a good fit. At first, you are excited about the new job, and see things you usually don’t like in a positive light. When people start in an organization, they undergo a process called socialization: they internalize the norms and values of the people around them. Socialization is a process we all go through from birth, when we learn the ways of the society we grow up in. It happens in organizations just the same. New employees pick up the behavior, norms, values, knowledge, social skills and particular language of the organization they just entered. They also learn how to navigate situations where they are confronted with behavior or norms they previously might not have found acceptable. Or they even slowly start to accept those behavior or norms. The need to fit in is stronger than the awareness that your personal boundaries are crossed. You become an adapted version of yourself, to ensure you can do your job, and make progress in the organization.

When the organization requires an adapted version of you, which deep down doesn’t resonate with who you really are, the two most common results are:

  • your socialization process is not quite successful. You have difficulty adjusting, getting along with key people, and you get criticized for it. The group feels you don’t fit in. A process of rejection and alienation starts, ultimately resulting in you getting fired.
  • you manage to socialize, at least in your external behavior (so others feel you’re fitting in fine), but you’re feeling more miserable by the day. Adaptation and pretending to be someone you’re not will exhaust you after a while, ultimately resulting in a burn-out.

In both cases you go through a process where your self-confidence goes downhill, your performance on the job suffers, diminishing your chances on promotions, salary raises, or getting the projects or tasks you like. I’ve seen people who keep plodding away because they think this particular job is worth the experience on their CV, or leaving an organization so soon might look bad. But in most cases those consequences are still better than being fired, or burnt out, and branded as a failure (for something which isn’t your fault). That’s why it is so important to leave an organization once you realize it just is not a good fit.

So how to know when to leave? If you can tick most of the below, it is time to consider a change!

  1. You notice regularly the organization’s values do not align with your personal core values.
  2. You’ve tried several times to address and change the parts of the culture you don’t like, at least in your own department, but met mostly with uncomprehending stares of people who think it is fine the way it is.
  3. You know you’re not delivering the best you can, and have run out of ideas of how to become more effective in this organization.
  4. You have a growing feeling of failing, exasperation or anger at work, although you might not quite grasp why.
  5. Your family or friends say you’ve changed for the worse, or that they haven’t seen you smile in a while.

If you recognize these symptoms, consider carefully whether it is really worth staying. When you won’t be able to shine in your organization, choose another place where you can.

The real reason big organizations pay better

In general, big multinational organizations pay better than medium or small(er) size organizations. They often pay a high base salary compared to the market. They certainly rank on top when all the secondary (and even tertiary) benefits are taken into account: bonuses, company cars, pension contributions and pension plan, healthcare contributions, employer discounts, gym subscriptions or gym onsite, incentives, end-of-year gifts and so on.

I used to think it had to do with the following reasons:

  • Big organizations have big, stable profits and can therefore simply afford more.
  • Big organizations want to have the most promising talent or the best specialists out there, so they make sure they have an attractive offer for the people they consider the best.
  • By paying slightly (or a lot) above market pay, organizations ensure stability through low attrition. The so-called golden cage, or golden handcuffs. Once you have a high salary with lots of perks, you won’t easily change jobs once you discover no one can offer you a similar package.

But after twenty years in HR, after having experience both in big multinationals (profit and non-profit) as in mid-size to small companies, I began to wonder. Although all of the above may be true, I consider the big pay of big organizations to be hardship pay.

Think about it: in bigger organizations you have to deal with more bureaucracy and standardization. Because of that:

  1. employees have to spent more time on unnecessary administrative tasks, which means they have to do more work they don’t like or that underutilizes their skills;
  2. employees spent a big amount of their time on coordination: in many management and staff roles an extraordinarily amount of energy has to be spent on appeasing other departments, staff, corporate, peers in other countries, and so on – leaving less time to execute their actual task. This leads to several well-known factors of stress: feeling unable to adequately cope with the demand of the job, having less autonomy, and not exactly knowing what their own role and responsibilities are;
  3. employees have to adjust more to the standard, have less opportunity to give input, and have less degrees of freedom in executing their work. There have been many experiments in the field of psychology proving that not having control over a situation leads to learned helplessness, which causes depression and deteriorating health;
  4. employees spent an extraordinary amount of time to navigate mixed messages, caused by an organization that lost part of its transparency with every growth spurt, has multiple organizational cultures coexisting and has many political power fights going on at the same time. This again causes confusion about role and responsibilities and frustrations in general.

Doing work you don’t like, underutilization of your skills, feeling you can’t cope with the demands of your job, learned helplessness, confusion about your role and responsibilities: all scientifically proven factors that increase work stress. And as stress is the number one work related health risk, people (often unconsciously) feel the need to be compensated for enduring it. Deep down they know they are sacrificing a lot, and want compensation (often in the form of money) for endangering their physical and mental health.

But I’m curious about you. How do you feel about your pay? And if you’re unhappy about it, what is the reason? Would you rather have a lower benefits package and be happy with your job, or do you feel a higher package is worth the health risks?