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Checking For Values Alignment When Considering a New Role

Alignment
Company Culture
Psychological Safety
Toxic Atmospheres
Cultural Differences
Prioritization
Health / Stress / Burn-Out

3 June, 2022

Tommy Morgan
Tommy Morgan

VP Engineering at Crystal Knows

Tommy Morgan, VP Engineering at Crystal Knows, recalls a time in his career when his values didn’t align with his superiors and shares his insights on preventing this outcome when taking on a new role.

Values Misalignment with Senior Leadership

In one of my earlier roles as an engineering leader, I began to experience a lot of friction around estimating work. The company’s policy was that team commitments had to include ‘stretch’ goals for delivering software above and beyond what the team felt they could complete. These stretch goals were almost an extra 50% beyond how the team estimated their capacity, and it was causing a lot of stress and burnout. Team members came to me expressing that they felt like they were on a ‘treadmill of failure’ and started every sprint knowing that they were going to fall well short of their stated goals.

Of course, as an engineering leader, these kinds of issues aren’t uncommon– where I really experienced friction was in bringing these concerns to more senior members of the leadership team. I expected that I would raise this feedback from the team and we’d have a simple conversation about how we could adjust our process for setting goals. I wasn’t at all prepared for the response I actually got: “Why would we change anything, since the team’s numbers are right where we want them to be? If people are upset about it, maybe this isn’t the right team for them.”

I feel really strongly about morale and psychological safety on any team, but especially on the Engineering teams that I manage. I went into this role assuming that everyone else shared that perspective. What I learned through this conversation (and others like it) is that this assumption wasn’t grounded in reality: my emphasis on keeping the team motivated in a healthy way wasn’t shared by senior leadership. Their emphasis was on motivating the team at all costs.

While I’m sure we all have our own opinions, and probably hold them very strongly, this wasn’t a clear-cut, objective, black-and-white right or wrong kind of conversation. Ultimately, it’s a reasonable difference of opinion about how to get the best results from your teams. Through my wrestling with this problem, I became aware of the importance of values: things you believe in strongly, even if a reasonable person could disagree with you. My values weren’t aligned with those of the company I was working with, and that was making it an increasingly unpleasant place for me to work.

Finding a Role That Aligns With Your Values

When working with computers, there's often a “right way to do things.” And being brought up as software engineers, we sometimes tend to think the same about managing teams. This is not the case.

There are a lot of varying opinions on the best way to manage an engineering team. I firmly believe that morale and psychological safety are the basis for productivity. Unfortunately, the leadership in my past company didn't feel the same way. This caused a lot of friction to the point where I was criticized for being too contrarian.

I had to make a decision. I could: a) Compromise my values and align with the leadership—which wasn't realistic. b) Continue trying to manage according to my values in an organization that didn't agree with my approach. c) Accept that this job wasn't a great fit and find a company that aligned with my management style.

I chose the latter path, knowing that it wouldn't be beneficial for me to work in a way that wasn't consistent with my personal values. Here's my advice for engineering leaders who are considering new positions:

Take some time to understand what your values are. What are the things that are important to you in leading teams? What upsets you when you hear about other people doing them? What does that say about your approach to leadership?

Check for value alignment in the interview process. Make sure that you consider your values when you're considering new roles. What are the company’s stated values, and are they consistent with yours? Do you get a sense in interviews that the company’s values are important, or are they just a ‘poster on the wall?’

Don't be afraid to be yourself in job interviews. Sometimes it can be tempting to squeeze yourself into a job description to get hired. I know I spent a lot of time early in my career looking at job interviews like a school test– there is a “right” answer to every question, and I have to give the right answer in order to maximize my score! But it's best to be very clear and upfront about who you are and what you value. It's better to get rejected for a role that is not a good fit than to get hired for a position you don't align with. Misalignment with a company's values can lead to burnout and dissatisfaction, high stress, and poor job performance.

Interviews are a great opportunity to ask questions. Most companies state their values on their website, but I suggest digging into them further. Ask them about how their values impact their day-to-day tasks. Personally, I ask questions like "How do you measure productivity in your team? How do you feel about incentivizing your engineers to meet their targets?" These questions give me a good insight into how the company aligns with my values about morale on the team.

Prioritizing During Your Job Search

  • I don't think that the perfect job exists. Therefore, it's important to determine which values are a must-have and which you'd be willing to compromise. If you wait until you have a job offer to make this decision, you could rationalize yourself into a bad fit! It’s better to know in advance what you have to have alignment on and what you’d like to have alignment on.

  • Job searching can be tiresome—and some people don't have the luxury of waiting for that perfect job. Also, people tend to ignore certain yellow flags simply to be done with the job-hunting process. To avoid this, make a checklist of your priorities and avoid straying too much from your preferences.

  • There are two types of value misalignment: intentional and unintentional. Intentional misalignment is when someone has a strictly different opinion from yours. Unintentional misalignment comes when people haven’t really thought through a situation or considered the problem before. An example of unintentional misalignment may be a first-time founder who suddenly finds themselves managing a team of 30 engineers. They hire you to help, but they’ve never done this before! They may end up pushing back on your approaches or giving off other signs of poor values alignment.

  • It’s important to know the difference between intentional and unintentional misalignment. You can almost never fix the former. In that case, you’re challenging someone else’s strongly-held opinions. But if you’re dealing with unintentional misalignment, you have an opportunity to educate the other person and possibly get them to see things from your perspective. They may still ultimately disagree, but more often than not if you can remain calm and present your thinking clearly, the ‘misalignment’ will vanish!

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