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When Your Values Conflict With Work

In 2003, I opened the Office of the U.S. Consul in Baghdad. My job was to assist private American citizens living and working in Iraq. While I disagreed with the decision to invade Iraq, I 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. 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. Iraqis begged me to help find family members abducted/arrested the night before by unknown American assailants. They wanted visas to the United States 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 leaving 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 quit.

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 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 also 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.

Luckily, 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?

I help individuals and teams thrive in adversity by providing practical skills and tools I developed over several decades as a U.S. diplomat in challenging environments. Visit my website to learn more about how I can help you and your team avoid burnout and become more innovative, collaborative, and productive despite overwhelming challenges, constant change, and chronic stress. Follow me on Twitter at @payneresilience.

Beth Payne is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is an experienced resilience trainer and consultant. In 2016, she created the U.S. Department of State’s Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience, where she designed resilience tools and resources for foreign affairs professionals. She served as a U.S. diplomat from 1993 until 2016 with assignments at the U.S. Embassies in Senegal, Rwanda, Israel, and Kuwait and as the U.S. Consul General in Kolkata, India. In 2003, she opened the Office of the U.S. Consul in Baghdad, Iraq, where she received the State Department’s award for heroism. You can read her posts here.

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Profile Photo David Reed

Your decision to stay in your assignment in Baghdad was laudable, and no one could blame you if you had decided to quit instead. But there is another option for a worker whose values conflict with what she is instructed to do: Do the job as you think is right rather than how your supervisors want it done, knowing that this is likely to damage your career. I admire people who are fired for doing the right thing more than people who resign in protest.
Of course, it is for each individual to decide whether to accept that career risk, just as you decided courageously to stay in your assignment despite the physical danger.

Profile Photo Lisa Salinas

What an important topic. Government work has a huge effect on people’s lives, and so it’s vital that we find meaning and value in what we do each day. There are times we cannot reconcile what we’re doing with our values, and it sucks the life from our souls. Finding purpose in the work anyway can help us get through the days until we are able to move to our next mission. Thank you for sharing this insightful piece!