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.

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