Go against the grain

by | Jul 17, 2023 | Leadership

I’m a firm believer that we are all in choice. We have the power to think, feel or do what we want in any given moment.

However, the trouble is that all choices have consequences. For example, I chose not to look at emails at all on my recent holiday. The consequence was that I switched off more than usual, but I missed a work opportunity. Fortunately, it isn’t a big miss and I’d say it was worth it for my enhanced rest and enjoyment on holiday. 

The way we do things round here

If you work in an organisation, it can feel more challenging to make choices which honour your values and priorities.

Someone once defined culture for me as “the way we do things round here”. When you work in a particular culture, there are ways of doing things that you appreciate and ways of doing things that you don’t mind adapting to.

There will also be ways of doing things that you don’t agree with or find hard to accept. Yet often we don’t feel we can make different choices for fear of negative consequences.

One leader I worked with a couple of years back – let’s call her Kim – took a new role with a corporate. In a world where hybrid working had become the norm, the organisation was old school. People came to work in the office every day and productivity was measured by time at your desk.

Kim found the lack of flexibility and constraints of the office environment stifling and the daily commute took the stuffing out of her. However, she felt uncomfortable leaving early so she could see her children before bedtime, even if she’d been working productively since 8am and was intending to log on at home later in the evening.

In time, she became increasingly exhausted and unhappy.

Going with the grain

To “go against the grain” means to behave in a way that is different from the norm. The phrase comes from woodworking – it is better to work with the grain of the wood when smoothing and finishing it to avoid damage. 

For our early human ancestors, it was in their interests to belong to a tribe. It wouldn’t have been safe to be on their own out on the savannah at the mercy of wild animals.

Unfortunately, that means our evolutionary legacy is to do everything we can to avoid losing our place in our modern-day tribe – the organisation we work for – even though we’re no longer in real danger.

We believe that going with the grain not against it will prevent us being thrown out, whether that’s doing whatever our boss wants or checking email 24/7.

Go against the grain

Yet what if going with the grain – going along with “the way we do things around here” – causes you damage? Or perpetuates unconstructive behaviours that people stick to because they don’t want to get into trouble? 

For example, logging on from the sofa or not taking a lunch break may make you feel as if you’re fitting in, but to what cost? The consequences are likely to be inability to switch off and poor sleep in turn leading to tiredness, low productivity and poor decision-making. Let alone missing the opportunity to be fully present with your loved ones.

The good news is that we aren’t on the savannah anymore.

Here’s some questions to ask yourself about whether it’s time for you to go against the grain :

  • Where are you going with the grain because you’re afraid of what others might think? What’s the cost to you of sacrificing what’s important to you in the longer-term? For example, making a real difference, happiness, wellbeing, being the parent you aspire to be.
  • What choices do you need to make to honour your values and priorities, and what consequences do you need to accept as a result?
  • Where might going against the grain help to change an unhealthy or unproductive culture? When you’re in a leadership position, people follow your example whether that’s taking a stand or blocking our time in your calendar.

And the crunch question :

  • Is “the way we do things around here” compatible with the choices which honour what’s important to you? Do you need to work in a different culture?

This was the answer for Kim who has now chosen a very different place to work where the positive consequences outweigh the negative, at least for now. 


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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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