part of Course 121 Navigating a Data Science Career
A leader in my organization did something I hate.
What do I do now?
Poor behavior by an organization’s leaders isn’t an uncommon scenario, nor is it a new one. Most of us will find ourselves in the situation at some point. What do we do when our academic institution/company/nonprofit does something unethical, illegal, or in really poor taste? How do we trade off the benefits of membership with the taint of association? This is an intensely personal question, and there’s no way I can answer it for you, but I can offer some starting points for considering your response.
When this happens, the initial experience is one of pain. You may feel one or more of these:
Betrayal of trust. This type of behavior is not what you signed on for. Maybe you just wanted satisfying employment or to make the world a little better place. And maybe leaders have said lofty things about values and vision. Then this happened. It’s a bait-and-switch and you feel betrayed.
Personal injury. Leaders' actions may hurt you directly. Sexual harassment and discrimination are all-to-common ways for this to happen, but it can also come in the form of verbal abuse, recognition withheld, or failing to provide a physically safe work environment.
Guilt. You may feel bad about yourself for being part of something that fails to live up to its promises. You might even feel personally accountable for leaders’ actions. This can manifest as a persistent gnawing feeling in your stomach that makes it hard to get out of bed.
Shame. It’s really natural to feel worried about what other people think—that they judge you as a sellout or a lemming or a pawn, weak or greedy or foolish. They may even say it in a tweet or to your face over holiday dinners. That stings.
While you are feeling these, keep your eyes open for gaslighting, where someone tries to convince you that the problem is you. Either you misunderstood, or you are too sensitive, or there were some extenuating circumstances, or "everyone knows that's just how Steve is." Gaslighting is manipulative, and it plays on our need to calibrate our social interpretations with others. Stick to your guns. If something feels wrong or off to you, no one can gainsay that. If you start second-guessing your reaction, find a couple of people that you trust deeply and reality check your experiences with them. Your experiences are yours, and no one can tell you they aren't valid.
Consider your options
So it hurts. What can you do about it? You have a few options, and they each come with their own upside and downside.
Gadfly. Criticize the bad behavior to other members of the organization. Make it clear that you disapprove.
- Downside: Leaders may not even be aware of your displeasure, much less feel pressure to change. This is a good coping mechanism, but may not resolve the issue. If leaders do become aware of your criticisms, they may move to smooth things over or they may try to keep you quiet.
- Upside: You are doing something. You don’t have to suffer in silence. Also, you get a chance to commiserate with other members of your organization and support anyone who might be feeling isolated. And there is always a small chance that the offending leader will hear and see the error of their ways.
Conscience. Call out leaders’ poor decisions but emphasize opportunities for improvement. Make a call to be better. Provide specific suggestions for corrective actions.
- Downside: Change is hard and so the default human position is to avoid it whenever possible. If leaders are not deliberately looking to improve, they will probably do the minimum, which is to say a few of the right words without making any substantive changes. They also might dismiss the criticism or simply do nothing, compounding the original sin.
- Upside: This is a very constructive approach. It is an expression of trust in your leaders. Compared to the criticism of the Gadly, it can be easier to hear and respond to a Conscience while saving face. It gives well meaning and responsive leaders a chance to improve and heal the organization.
Dissenter. While maintaining affiliation with the organization, condemn the objectionable behavior in a public forum, like Twitter or the New York Times. A Dissenter is like a Gadfly, except that they air their grievances publicly.
- Downside: Unfortunately, most organizations don't take well to this. If you are vocal enough, you will likely be marginalized within the organization or even kicked out. This can cost a lot, both personally and professionally.
- Upside: This makes a strong statement to all your social and professional circles that you condemn the behavior. It puts distance between you and your organization and provides an escape from guilt and shame. When conditions are right, this can produce a great deal of pressure on the organization to change.
Saboteur. Stay part of the organization but deliberately damage it. Common approaches include obstructing operations or leaking confidential information.
- Downside: It is possible that whatever harm you do will touch people in the organization that were not responsible for the offenses. You'll need to consider your path carefully if you want to avoid collateral damage.
- There's also a risk that leaders will seek retribution. Depending on the circumstances, your reputation may be attacked, you may be sued, you may be ostracized. Very large organizations have a great deal of power. In extreme cases you can literally spend the rest of your life suffering the consequences. I don't say this to dissuade you, but to encourage you to think through your options carefully.
- Upside: You can do real damage this way. If you have lost faith in an organization's leaders completely and have been personally harmed, this method offers a bit of justice.
Ghost. Cut affiliation with the organization. Find another job, another community. Move on.
- Downside: The original infraction goes unaddressed. There is no resolution, and no guarantee that the same thing won't happen again. You also lose whatever it was that drew you to the organization to start with - a salary, a community, a common cause.
- Upside: The immediate cause of your pain may be removed. You get the chance to extricate yourself and start over. This is can be helpful when you have little hope of redress or improving the organization. You cut your losses and move on.
Apostate. Leave the organization and actively attack it from the outside.
- Downside: Like the Ghost, you give up whatever benefits of membership you had. And like the Saboteur, you may end up harming those still in the organization that bear no responsibility for leaders' actions.
- Upside: You are more free to operate, since you don't need to worry about complying with the organizations norms (or at least appearing to). Your criticism can flow freely. You are not untouchable, especially to very powerful organizations, but it raises the bar for them to retaliate. They can't hold threat of expulsion over you. Publicly dismissing you and legal recourse are more common responses.
- Downside: Nothing changes. Whatever bad thing happened might well happen again. And again.
- Upside: Sometimes it's not worth the fight. If you are close to retirement or vesting it can be easiest just to ride it out. There are lots of instances where the personal connections or financial benefits of membership outweigh whatever embarassment a leader has caused. Sometimes, you can't afford to just walk away.
- Sometimes there just aren't any other viable options. The uncertainty of leaving a familiar organization can bring terror and paralysis. The thought of leaving friends and colleagues behind without support in a toxic environment can be profoundly distasteful.
- If you stay in the organization, you keep whatever goodness is there. You get to continue supporting your colleagues and community and drawing support from them. There may still be great opportunities for doing good, strengthening a community, or financially supporting your loved ones.
- The Do Nothing strategy can also be accompanied by a mild strain of the Saboteur in which you withold your best efforts. After all, it's hard to be committed to an organization when you feel disappointed or ashamed of its leaders.
Choosing what to do can be agonizing. There are some big questions to consider. How are the ogranization's leaders likely to respond? What’s will be the benefit to me and those I care about? And what's the cost?
Above all else, be true to yourself. You might feel strongly that you need to do something without being able to say exactly why. Watch for strong feelings that don't fade after you've slept on them a couple of times. That’s a strong signal. Hang on to that deep-seated conviction, even if well-meaning people you trust try to talk you out of it. If you don’t follow through with it, you are likely to regret it for a long time.
The leaders of someone else’s organization did something very wrong.
What do I do?
This is also a way-too-common situation. Again, the decision of whether and how to respond is yours alone, but I can offer a few points to consider.
- Organizations are made of individual people. A company is made up of the individuals. A board is made up of individuals. A committee is made up of individuals. Individual leaders made very poor decisions. The majority of the people in that organization are not responsible for those decisions, and may not support them.
- On a related note, be gentle when judging members of the organization that stay or fail to condemn it. There's no way to know for sure what their constraints or motivations are. They may be doing the best they can manage at the moment.
- Don't put much weight on what a leader says when called out. Instead, watch what they do. A sincere and specific apology is a great start (and rare enough), but when accompanied by repeated offenses it doesn't count for much. Actions speak louder than words. I weight the importance actions-to-words about 20-to-1.
- Pointing at another organization’s failings don’t make up for those in your own. Make sure you're not just distracting yourself from problems closer to home or trying to redirect shame away from yourself.
- Labeling organizations as "evil" tends not to be useful. Regardless of their stated purpose, nearly every organization has some instances of bad behavior. Social irresponsibility, ethical sketchiness, or personal disrepect can be found almost anywhere if you look closely enough. Sadly, it seems to be a constant in any reasonably-sized group of humans. By some yardsticks, every organization is evil, and the word loses meaning. It's more useful to look at the specifics of the situation. How much harm was done? How powerless were the recipients? Was the incident isolated or part of a long-running pattern? Was it quickly remedied or minimized and covered up? Keeping your analysis concrete will help you more clearly navigate the trade-offs as you consider your response.
- Consider your goals. An online rant feels good but quickly fades, like a rock thrown into a pond. Reporting specific events and advocating specific corrections carries far more weight and is longer-lived.
I hope some of the ideas here are helpful to you. If you have additions to suggest or a story to tell, don't hesitate to send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or post it on Twitter (@_brohrer_).
I struggled with when to release this post. It's natural to look at whatever happened in the news yesterday and assume it was a trigger. But this has been brewing for decades. I’m not an expert in this area. These are opinions only. Most importantly I haven't experienced what you've experienced. Take anything here that's useful and discard the rest.
Know that the frustration, anger, and/or sadness that you feel is legitimate and that you have some options. I wish you well as you find your path.