The Compromise Trap

How to Thrive at Work Without Selling Your Soul

Elizabeth Doty (Author) | Art Kleiner (Foreword by)

Publication date: 11/01/2009

The Compromise Trap

A collection of practical exercises and strategies you for staying true to yourself at work while contributing to your organization's effectiveness and integrity.

A detailed and inspiring strategy for staying true to yourself at work while contributing to your organization’s effectiveness and integrity

Based on over fifty candid interviews with businesspeople at all levels, including vivid firsthand accounts of compromise and courage

Eminently practical and constructive, with exercises and strategies you can apply wherever you work


Healthy compromise is a fact of organizational life, part of accomplishing any meaningful goal with other people. But when it involves betraying your word, your principles, or other important commitments, it takes a bite out of your passion and vitality, trapping you in a web of nagging doubts and regrets or even dread and remorse. Sadly, certain common misconceptions about compromise mean we can fall into this trap unknowingly, making a sort of “devil’s bargain by degrees.” Even worse, this can happen while working for companies and leaders we otherwise respect and admire.

So what can you do, short of sacrificing your career?

In this unflinching but consistently constructive and timely look at concessions, double-binds, and contradictions of organizational life, Doty suggests the antidote is to “redefine the game” – expand your ability to be a positive force regardless of the setting. At the core of this strategy are six personal foundations that she illuminates with practical exercises and examples, including Reconnect to Your Strengths, See the Larger Playing Field, Define a Worthy Enough Win, Find Your Real Team, Make Positive Plays, and Keep Your Own Score.

Full of candid firsthand stories from Doty’s interviews with over fifty businesspeople as well as her own experiences as a consultant and manager, The Compromise Trap offers sympathetic guidance for individuals striving to live with greater integrity, courage, and purpose at work, as well as the executives, coaches, consultants, and loved ones who support them and senior leaders who want to expand what it means for organizations to act with integrity in the world.

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Overview

A collection of practical exercises and strategies you for staying true to yourself at work while contributing to your organization's effectiveness and integrity.

A detailed and inspiring strategy for staying true to yourself at work while contributing to your organization’s effectiveness and integrity

Based on over fifty candid interviews with businesspeople at all levels, including vivid firsthand accounts of compromise and courage

Eminently practical and constructive, with exercises and strategies you can apply wherever you work


Healthy compromise is a fact of organizational life, part of accomplishing any meaningful goal with other people. But when it involves betraying your word, your principles, or other important commitments, it takes a bite out of your passion and vitality, trapping you in a web of nagging doubts and regrets or even dread and remorse. Sadly, certain common misconceptions about compromise mean we can fall into this trap unknowingly, making a sort of “devil’s bargain by degrees.” Even worse, this can happen while working for companies and leaders we otherwise respect and admire.

So what can you do, short of sacrificing your career?

In this unflinching but consistently constructive and timely look at concessions, double-binds, and contradictions of organizational life, Doty suggests the antidote is to “redefine the game” – expand your ability to be a positive force regardless of the setting. At the core of this strategy are six personal foundations that she illuminates with practical exercises and examples, including Reconnect to Your Strengths, See the Larger Playing Field, Define a Worthy Enough Win, Find Your Real Team, Make Positive Plays, and Keep Your Own Score.

Full of candid firsthand stories from Doty’s interviews with over fifty businesspeople as well as her own experiences as a consultant and manager, The Compromise Trap offers sympathetic guidance for individuals striving to live with greater integrity, courage, and purpose at work, as well as the executives, coaches, consultants, and loved ones who support them and senior leaders who want to expand what it means for organizations to act with integrity in the world.

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Meet the Author & Other Product Contributors


Visit Author Page - Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a consultant, coach, and facilitator specializing in how people participate in large organizations while staying true to themselves and being a positive force -- however they define those.

Since earning her MBA from Harvard and joining a reengineering firm in 1991, she has both subscribed to the ""official story"" of business and lived through the contradictions and absurdities of eneryday organizational life. Time in the trenches in a variety of industries, including 11 years in hospitality management, has allowed her to talk with over 400 people about the challenges, triumps and dilemmas of doing work they are proud of.

In late 1993 she founded Leadership Momentum, a consulting firm that uses story and systems thinking to help leaders resolve complex operational and leadership issues. Current and past clients include Intuit, Camp, Dresser, McKee, Stanford University, Skillsoft, Hewlett Packard, Archstone-Smith, and CTB/McGraw-Hill.

Ms. Doty has presented at Systems Thinking in Action, the Business Ethics Network, and the Bay Area Society for Organizational Learning, and been published in the Pfeiffer HRM Annual and Strategy + Business magazine. From 2004-2006, she assisted Dr. William Ury in researching examples for his book, The Power of A Positive No.



Foreword by Art Kleiner

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Table of Contents

Foreword


Introduction: Seeing with Peripheral Vision

What to Expect

How to Use This Book


Chapter 1: The Compromise Trap

  • Healthy and Unhealthy Compromise
  • Healthy and Unhealthy Pressure
  • How Shall I Engage?
  • The Compromise Trap
  • Redefining the Game
  • Personal Foundations
  • Thriving at Work Without Selling Your Soul


Chapter 2: A Devil's Bargain by Degrees

  • An Appreciative Inquiry into the "Dark Side" of Work
  • General Pressure to Conform
  • Routine Pressure to Compromise
  • Making a Gradual Deal with the Devil
  • How Playing Along Becomes a Trap
  • How Do You Know if You're in the Compromise Trap?
  • How to Free Yourself


Chapter 3: Ten Misconceptions about Compromise at Work

  • Misconception 1: Compromise is Always Healthy
  • Misconception 2: Good Companies Don't Create Unhealthy Pressure
  • Misconception 3: Unhealthy Pressure Is the Leader's Fault
  • Misconception 4: You Have to Go Along to Survive
  • Misconception 5: You'll Always Know If You're Crossing a Line
  • Misconception 6: The Company Sets the Terms
  • Misconception 7: You Should Just Say No
  • Misconception 8: Refusing to Compromise Means Fighting Back
  • Misconception 9: You Thrive When You Get to the Top
  • Misconception 10: Individual Integrity Adds Up to Organizational Integrity


Chapter 4: How Do I Redefine the Game?

  • Welcome to the Parallel Universe
  • What it Means to Redefine the Game
  • Becoming Bigger
  • Creating Room to Redefine Your Game
  • Bigger Questions
  • Do I Have to Leave to Engage at a Higher Level


Chapter 5: Reconnect to Your Strengths

  • What It Means to Reconnect to Your Strengths
  • Reconnecting to Your Strengths in the Moment
  • Reconnecting to Your Strengths over Time
  • Where to Go from Here


Chapter 6: See the Larger Field

  • What it Means to See the Larger Field
  • Seeing the Larger Field in the Moment
  • Seeing the Larger Field over Time
  • Where to Go from Here


Chapter 7: Define a Worthy Enough Win

  • What It Means to Define a Worthy Enough Win
  • Defining a Worthy Enough Win in the Moment
  • Defining a Worthy Enough Win over Time
  • Where to Go from Here


Chapter 8: Find Your Real Team

  • What It Means to Find Your Real Team
  • Finding Your Real Team in the Moment
  • Finding Your Real Team over Tiime
  • Where to Go from Here


Chapter 9: Make Positive Plays

  • What It Means to Make Positive Plays
  • The Five Positive Plays
  • Where to Go from Here


Chapter 10: Keep Your Own Score

  • What It Means to Keep Your Own Score
  • Keeping Your Own Score in the Moment
  • Keeping Your Own Score over Time
  • Where to Go from Here


Chapter 11: Thriving at Work

  • The Heart of the Choice
  • What It Means to Thrive at Work
  • It Begins with a Decision


Chapter 12: It's Bigger Than a Game

  • Larger Forces at Work
  • Moving Toward Organizational Integrity
  • Let's Make This Real


Individual and Small-Group Activities

Online Resources

Acknowledgments

Notes

Index

About the Author

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Excerpt

The Compromise Trap

Introduction: Seeing with Peripheral Vision

This book is for people who are striving to live with integrity and purpose at work but are increasingly troubled by the compromises, double-binds, and contradictions of organizational life—and for those who want to avoid such messes in the first place. It is for professionals at all levels, at all stages in their careers, who bring energy and commitment to their work but have a growing uneasiness with ways they are not being fully true to themselves—whether breaking promises, stretching the truth, or something more severe. And it is for those who are not sure.

In this book we explore the problem of unhealthy pressure to compromise at work—the feeling that you may have to “drink the Kool-Aid,” “play the game” in negative ways, or “sell your soul” to survive or reach your goals, compromising your personal values, commitments, or professional standards in the process. Drawing on in-depth interviews with more than fifty businesspeople in a variety of industries—as well as on my own experiences in the trenches with a global corporation; nineteen years of consulting experience diagnosing breakdowns and dysfunctions in large, complex organizations; and a number of studies in social psychology—I hope to show how, over time, unhealthy compromise actually becomes a self-depleting trap, hurting you, your organization, and your organization’s ability to fulfill its commitments and obligations to the larger world. My goal is to invite you instead to redefine the game—to engage at a higher level, deliberately reconceiving what your work is about, knowing that it is not just a game but real life.

Compromise is a tricky subject. Compromising on anything never feels completely right or satisfying. And it is always challenging to look at a problem when you are not sure there is any other option. I hope that the ideas presented here will solidify more options in your mind so that you will feel more confident reflecting on which compromises involve making the best of a bad situation and which go too far.

In a way this book is about seeing with your peripheral vision; that is, recognizing what you partly know but that has not yet fully come into focus. The periphery of awareness is often where you learn the most, as old habits make what is right in front of you too familiar for insight. By widening your gaze to include what is just outside your normal focus, you can sometimes see what you have been missing—and increase the possibility of actually learning from your experience.

My own first glance into peripheral vision happened back in 1993. Two years out of business school, I was working for a group of brilliant and passionate reengineering consultants as the “numbers person” responsible for calculating the client’s financial payoff for project proposals to streamline processes, provide better technology tools, or train frontline client staff. When I first started, I was absolutely convinced of the massive potential for improvement and reflected those assumptions in my analyses. It was only after seeing the realities of large-scale organizational change on several projects that I began to realize how unrealistic my projections were. Thus after my third major engagement, I felt a profound uneasiness as I sat with one of our senior leaders, making a pitch to a prospective client: “We think you can get a 35 percent reduction in cycle time and a 20 percent reduction in unit costs by the end of the year.” I knew as soon as the words came out of my mouth that they were false. What had at one point been a passionate conviction was now a lie.

I call this a case of peripheral vision because the facts of the situation had not changed, but inside I saw things differently. Something tipped the moment I actually spoke the words, and I suddenly knew what I really thought. This experience and others like it forced me to confront the ways I sometimes tune out data that contradict my preferred beliefs. At first, facing these discrepancies caused me much private angst.

Unhealthy compromise so often comes with the option to avoid realizing that fact—to tune it out, rationalize it away, or change our standards. We don’t have to see. Though Enron’s motto was Ask why, one ex-trader said, “If I had questions, I didn’t ask them…because I didn’t want to know the answer.”1

Sometimes it seems easier to shut out the data that raise too many unsolvable complications, but there are some very good reasons for tuning in to peripheral awareness.

First, seeing more of reality makes us saner. Things make more sense. We don’t have to spend all that psychic energy tap dancing around the minefields of awareness, trying not to think what we’re about to think. This means we can actually make a change. For example, it was not long after facing my own compromise in my work situation that I made the commitment to pursue a different type of consulting that more openly acknowledges the challenges of large-scale change—the brand of consulting I practice today, almost two decades later.

This brings us to the second reason for tapping what is at the edge of our awareness. Peripheral vision reveals gold along with lead. It gives us glimpses of who we really want to be, what we really want to do in the world, the passions and the talents we may have put on hold, and the missions big enough to truly engage our creative energies.

I learned this during my second glance into peripheral vision in 1998, when I was talking with two friends after watching a documentary about the Vietnam War. The movie zeroed in on the soldiers’ spouses and how they decided whether they really wanted to know what their partners were involved in during the war. Sparked by that question of whether to see, my friends and I asked ourselves, What is going on today that, if we were to fully look at it, might call us to take some action? It was a fishing line into peripheral vision. What surfaced were the dormant missions that lay waiting for us to pay attention—missions that each of us is still actively working toward today, ten years later.

For me that conversation helped clarify the core inquiry that has energized my most interesting work since: how do people reconcile the contrast between what they care about as people with the societal challenges that the organizations they work for may sometimes contribute to creating, intentionally or not?

That question led me to embark on a series of interviews with fifty-two businesspeople in a variety of industries over the past four years, and their stories form the core of this book.

It is also why I find the topic of unhealthy compromise at work so important. It is a challenge with consequences at multiple levels. First, our lives are so intertwined with our identities at work, it is hard to imagine a satisfying life without work in which we can take pride. Second, when organizations create too much unhealthy pressure to compromise, they speed faster along the route to dysfunction and limited results, cutting off intelligence about how ineffective policies are undermining larger strategies to retain customers, engage employees, and deliver for shareholders. And, finally, lots of individual compromises, however reluctant, can add up to organizations that gradually erode their own integrity—tuning out the ways they cause harm or reneging on commitments and obligations to customers, employees, shareholders, the larger society, and the natural world.

So, I hope that as you explore this book you will not only take away deeper confidence and an increased ability to live up to your personal and professional commitments in the face of unhealthy pressure at work but also feel inspired to participate more actively in helping your organization act with integrity, fulfilling its commitments and potential for positive action in the world.

What to Expect

Our journey involves three primary topic areas:

image Understanding how unhealthy compromise can become a trap

image Learning what it means to redefine the game and engage at a higher level

image Taking practical steps for strengthening your ability to engage at that higher level in a wider range of circumstances, including unhealthy pressure from your organization

My hope is that having a greater understanding of the challenge, knowing how to access your sources of strength, and seeing multiple constructive options for action will give you the confidence to step up to the challenge of bringing your personal and professional commitments more fully into your day-to-day work.

We will talk about ethics, but we will go beyond traditional discussions of ethics in three ways. First, rather than examine the right thing to do in a situation, we will focus on how to strengthen your ability to live up to the values you already hold. Second, we will go beyond basic ethics and integrity to the other personal and professional commitments and values that affect your sense of being true to yourself, including what sort of person you want to be, your commitments to your family, your professional standards, what you consider worthwhile work, and your health and selfrespect. Third, it is useful to understand how other factors such as groups, authority figures, and situational forces affect our choices, so I will bring in references to these factors from the fields of psychological ethics and social psychology where they are helpful.

In some sense what we explore in this book is integrity in its broadest sense. Not just consistency between your words and actions but the wholeness and the vitality that come with seeing the world as it is, sustaining your relationships, and fulfilling a worthwhile purpose.2

Chapters 1, 2, and 3—“The Compromise Trap,” “A Devil’s Bargain by Degrees,” and “Ten Misconceptions about Compromise at Work”—explore what unhealthy compromise means, how it becomes a trap, and why we fall into that trap.

Chapter 4, “How Do I Redefine the Game?” tackles the challenge of how to engage at a higher level even when your organization or leader does not encourage it. Drawing on a variety of models from systems thinking to the pro-democracy movements in central Europe, I hope to convince you that far more is negotiable than you think, making it possible to act on your principles and values even in the face of unhealthy pressure.

Still, you will need more than a “just say no” strategy if you are going to pull it off without hurting yourself, so chapters 5 to 10 cover the personal foundations that make up your internal reinforcement system and enable you to redefine the game: “Reconnect to Your Strengths,” “See the Larger Field,” “Define a Worthy Enough Win,” “Find Your Real Team,” “Make Positive Plays,” and “Keep Your Own Score.” These are the practical how-to chapters, outlining how to see past the blinders that hide choice points and options, demonstrating the importance of a “professional quest” for keeping you focused, and describing five positive plays you can make in the face of unhealthy pressure (fighting back is only one of them).

Integrity Being true, whole, undivided, and sound, which includes consistency between words and actions, being open to seeing the world as it is, sustaining relationships, and fulfi lling a worthwhile purpose. Put most simply, integrity involves seeing, caring, and action.

In the last two chapters, we connect the dots. In chapter 11, “Thriving at Work,” I ask you to step back and reconsider your assumptions about what it takes to thrive. You’ll see that though it seems riskier, redefining the game at a higher level actually has all the core ingredients for greater well-being for yourself and as a positive model to those around you. Finally, in chapter 12, “It’s Bigger Than a Game,” we see that responding to unhealthy pressure is not just an individual challenge but part of a necessary evolution toward organizations that act with integrity as a whole.

What I offer here is from the perspective of one who has been on the inside of large organizations (during my eleven years in hospitality management), who has struggled to integrate my values and my work without marginalizing myself, and who is now part of the support system for others who are doing the same. The stories you read here have all happened as reported, though I have omitted names and sometimes disguised industries to avoid embarrassing those involved.

How to Use This Book

To get the most out of the book, I encourage you to let it serve as a catalyst to uncovering the lessons in your own experience, a prompt to tap your own peripheral vision. My primary thesis is that when you broaden your perspective, you naturally see the costs of unhealthy compromise, the priorities that provide true security and satisfaction, and the hidden options for action that may not be apparent when you feel cornered into compromise. The whole story is about making better choices because you see more clearly. So, the examples and the ideas here should serve as prompts for telling your own story in a way that makes new sense and offers new guidance.

At the close of each chapter, I offer a few questions for reflection to spark your thinking and help you apply the concepts to your own situation. In chapters 5 through 10, you will find practical “Decision Point Tools” to help you address a specific problem or pressure. And, finally, I have included a section at the back of the book called “Individual and Small-group Activities,” which includes six additional in-depth activities designed to take you from the compromise trap to the excitement of redefining the game, in whatever situation you find yourself, over a period of several weeks or months.

If you are stuck in a stressful situation, I hope this book will give you the reinforcement you need to recognize that investing in your personal strength and ability to be a positive force is not a luxury for another day but a way to create more flexibility, freedom, and respect in even the toughest settings. It will be important for you to read the early sections about how simply going along with pressure can backfire and become a trap so that you are clear about why it’s worth investing in your personal foundations and adopting a “professional quest.”

On the other hand, if you have already redefined how you engage or have embarked on a professional quest, you may want to jump to the later chapters on personal foundations to add options and reinforcement for the path you have already undertaken.

This is a broad territory to explore. To keep it focused, I have tried to include just the critical ideas you need to push back the barriers to redefining the game and engaging at a higher level. I hope you will view each chapter as a stepping stone on the path to ongoing personal development, which will expand your range even further should you choose to pursue it.

One last note before we dive in: for clarity’s sake, I speak to “you” as the reader when I have a suggestion to make or a proposition to offer. One downside of this convention is that it implies a teacher/student relationship that just doesn’t fit here, especially given the thorniness of the topic. I realize that I have much to learn myself and could just as easily speak to what “we” need to do—you and I both. What I offer is based on my best understanding to date, given prolonged study, application in my own professional life, discussions with countless individuals, and ongoing conversations with several thought leaders in the field. As a reminder that these ideas are meant for both men and women, I have opted to vary gender pronouns throughout the text, rather than adopt the more awkward convention of adding “he or she” at every turn.

The payoffs for embarking on this journey are the increased vitality, energy, confidence, security, and excitement that come with redefining the game based on your own independent decision to do so. In the process, you change yourself from a cog in a machine to a “hidden degree of freedom in the system’s unexpressed creativity,”3 contributing in unexpected ways to the evolution of the larger institutions where you work.

Thank you for choosing to pick up The Compromise Trap. I look forward to working together to strengthen your ability to redefine the game and engage at the level at which you truly want to engage.

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Endorsements

The Compromise Trap will confirm the experience of all who work in systems. It is insightful and well written and aims us in the right direction.”

—Peter Block, author of Stewardship and The Answer to How Is Yes


“Human nature has a strong compassionate, cooperative base that needs to be rediscovered. Elizabeth Doty’s systemic and realistic approach provides guidance on how we can make the world a better place for everyone, not just for ourselves.”

—Napier Collyns, cofounder, Global Business Network


The Compromise Trap is thoughtful, pragmatic, and provocative and a pleasure to read.

—Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr., John Shad Professor of Business Ethics, Harvard Business School


“Elizabeth Doty has brought greater depth of understanding to one of the major dilemmas of organizational life: what causes people to do what they believe is not right? I hope this book encourages everyone to avoid the compromise trap and provides leaders with insight that will help them create healthy organizations where people and the business thrive.”

—Nancy Southern, Chair, Organizational Systems Program, Saybrook Graduate School


The Compromise Trap clearly and directly addresses an essential principle for navigating toward a more sustainable economy—acting from the center. Without acting from what is true for each of us, our collective actions may not realize our intentions, which is a great risk indeed.”

—Stacey Smith, Managing Director, Advisory Services, BSR


“An engaging and easy-to-understand analysis of the traps we weave at work and, frankly, in our daily lives. This book is relevant to anyone looking to ‘redefine the game.’ With the ethics breakdowns in business over the past decade, it is a must-read for every business school student and businessperson up to and including the C-suite and the board.”

—Steven F. McCann, retired Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Longs Drugs Stores


The Compromise Trap reveals the pandemic of incremental soul-selling in the workplace, as people compromise bit by bit until one day they wake up in disbelief at the full costs. Read this book and liberate yourself and your colleagues from the indentured spiritual servitude that sometimes seems required to earn a living. A how-to on the emancipation of the soul at work.”

—John Renesch, businessman-turned-futurist, senior executive advisor, and author of Getting to the Better Future


“I agree with Doty: you cannot outsource your integrity to your leader. The Compromise Trap is an important book, not only for our corporate lives, but also for our health and wholeness as a society.”

—Roger Saillant, former senior executive, Ford Motor Company


“Elizabeth Doty has touched on one of the often-secret dilemmas of organizational life: how to stay true to your deeper ‘knowing’ as you navigate the delicate terrain of organizational politics, ethical forks in the road, personal well-being, and competing loyalties. Her pioneering illumination of practical steps we can take, both individually and collectively, to embrace the higher possibilities inherent in even the most difficult situations is a great contribution to organizational leaders and members everywhere. Bravo!”

—Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, cofounders, The World Café, and coauthors of The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter

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