Your job interview is going well, until the chairman of the panel leans forward and says: “Are you someone who always gets the job done, regardless of obstacles – or do you prioritise getting buy-in from everybody involved, even if that means a delay?”
Danger! You realise this is the interview’s killer question. Your background research revealed this business is driven hard by its leaders, who value momentum over consensus and encourage dog-eat-dog internal competition.
Actually, you value careful problem-solving, taking time to work out the right thing to do in collaboration with others. But you know revealing your true preferences will lose you this job, which would double your pay. So you give the answer you know the panel wants to hear: “There’s nothing more important than meeting the deadline – and I don’t let anybody get in the way of achieving it.”
The chairman leans back, looks to left and right, and you spot the tiny nods of approval from the rest of the panel.
You have just landed the appointment. But you are also likely to have handed yourself a real and enduring problem once you turn up for work. In terms of culture, your preferences are entirely at odds with the competitive and driven culture permeating the business. So you now have to pick between two unpalatable choices.
One option is to ignore the culture, and just be yourself. Unfortunately, it will not be long before your way of working is tripped up by your new colleagues’ alien (at least to you) outlooks and behaviours. Your consultative nature will get in the way of the forward momentum that the business demands; at best, your natural preferences will come across as irrelevant, and at worst might seem obstructive.
Teammates may begin cutting you out of projects in the interest of self-preservation, or actively undermining you. If you’re lucky, you will be able to hang on to your job for a while, but it will be difficult for you to achieve anything meaningful, and your days are likely to contain conflict, frustration and stress.
The other option is to ‘work out of preference’ – suppress your natural instincts, and try to blend in with the new cultural outlook surrounding you.
I’ve seen many people manage to do this, sometimes for years – and most of them are unhappy, surviving instead of thriving. They tend to have little to contribute to the business because their heart isn’t in the job and they have to spend most of their energy in managing their own behaviours so as not to be ‘found out’. The need to remain undetected will require you to say as little as possible, and make every effort not to stand out – a posture that hardly encourages insights or added value, and will not help your reputation.
Of course, the strengths of people’s preferences vary – as does their ability to manage those preferences. Very occasionally, I have encountered leaders with outstanding insight and talent who can genuinely see how to help organisations change their ways over time, having sufficient spare capability to both do their day jobs and achieve change, all while managing their own preferences to fit in with the culture and its politics. But this is no easy task, and gets harder the lower you are in the chain of command.
Unless you recognise yourself as one of these exceptional people, my suggestion would be to always play to your own strengths; if you are comfortable with an organisation’s way of working, you are far more likely to make strong contributions and find your work fulfilling and satisfying. Occasionally, organisations will deliberately make countercultural hirings (and if so, you need to be sure the company has prepared properly for this difficult task); but in general, if you find yourself looking at a potential opening in an organisation whose culture runs against your own preferences, walk away, even if the money is good. The gain is not worth the pain.