Elizabeth Doty joined the show recently. I hope you listen as we talk about her work with WorkLore and her inspiring and useable book: The Compromise Trap: How to Thrive at Work Without Selling Your Soul.
Elizabeth co-founded WorkLore which works with corporate clients in helping their leaders and teams make their missions real, increasing the engagement, integrity and alignment that make their work bigger than a game.
They serve as allies and thought partners, bringing commitment, expertise and respect in helping their clients discover their breakthrough opportunities hidden in their business and community of stakeholders.
In 2006, she supported William Ury with research for his book, The Power of a Positive No.
She recently completed The Compromise Trap: How to Thrive at Work Without Selling Your Soul.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I found myself anxious to turn the page to find what new research or case-study or profile or, maybe most importantly, tips and tools and resources to Thrive at Work Without Selling Your Soul. She always delivered.
She delivered during our recent conversation. Listen here.
Elizabeth, thank you for being on our show!
My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
Thank you for writing a great book! When did you decide to write this book?
It kinda crystallized in 2006. I had been working in the trenches. I’m a very operations-oriented consultant. I have a unique vantage point to check out all the parts of a system and see how they work together because I work on these complex issues.
I started noticing a pattern that got me curious. I felt I had to take on a project to help me understand what these dynamics were.
What was the single catalyst that inspired you, compelled you, even insisted you write it?
It had been building for awhile starting with my own industry, the notoriously dysfunctional business, the hotel industry. talk about compromising principles! Just standing in the back room and watching them overbook rooms so that when you show up and there’s no room available. It had been building for awhile.
I noticed a pattern, it was a little strange. It wasn’t what you expect. There were so many people experiencing private angst over what they had to do for their work. Things that would seem to be good for a company.
I remember there was a VP for an insurance company. He was terrified that if he moved ahead with a quality assurance project he would lose his job. Or a head of technology for another group who was asked to cut costs and the things that he did were going to determine whether a product launch with major revenues, bet the company kind of stuff, could be hamstrung for lack of a $2-3000 small bit of equipment in the background. He was terrified that he was going to be the one delaying the product launch and yet, when he brought up this issue, he was told... "Figure it out."
So, I saw a lot of people feeling this private angst and to me it was clear that it was leading to many of the recurring dysfunctions for the business. And when you added it up in the aggregate it was leading to some pretty bad things in the world. I'm thinking about healthcare. Healthcare professionals are pushed to diagnose things that aren’t there.
There are some things that have consequences for the larger world as we can see from the financial crisis.
Erika Andersen coined a great phrase and question in her book Being Strategic. The phrase is reasonable aspiration or hoped-for future. I see your book as reflecting your mission. The question is: What is your reasonable aspiration or hoped-for future? What was yours with writing this book?
I think it’s interesting, I just want to comment that having an aspiration is a very daring act. And it completely shifts our relationship to work. I think that in itself is a fantastic concept.
My aspiration with this is pretty simple, I think. What I'd like to contribute to is people, human beings, staying alive in organization. It’s human beings that see the logical consequence of lots of small decisions that may be made in isolation. But that end up at some point effecting somebody.
I see the ICU nurse who was having panic attacks because her patient load had tripled because of managed care. She’s the one who can see that someone might die because of this policy.
And if we stay alive in organizations I’m thinking we might have a chance at having a more functional or more potential for business to reach another level. Because I think it’s bigger than a game how we act at work. Much of the harm that happens in the world is through people doing things at work.
It effects our own personal life. It’s your real life. It’s not a game when you can’t see your kids on their birthdays. There are real repercussions ... Our economy is at an inflection point if we continue to do stupid stuff.
And there are real consequences beyond work, for the larger society. I was struck by the tragic comment by Deep Water Horizon as the explosion was happening saying “Are you happy now? We’ve cut enough costs.”
On the other side of that, I want to paint the spirit of aspiration. I’ve seen some incredible examples of people with a very light touch shifting a complete direction. Like a project that was giving lip service to some corporate social responsibility objectives and one team member, not even a leader, said “Hey. How ‘bout we make this real?”
I love that point you make: How 'bout we make this real?
We have the strategies and the missions that are all aspirational, right? The gap is how real this is in practice. Is this real change? Is this fake change?
Where did we get off-track? As kids we always had the aspiration to do well. We treated each other relatively well. Ultimately we would do the right thing. And somewhere along the way we seemed to have lost that connection. Somewhere, we became comfortable compromising our ethics.
This is such a hard one to bring up. People tend to focus with me on what's a healthy compromise and what's an unhealthy compromise and how do you weigh it?
I see one of the bigger issues that I've learned through my reading and the stories of people that I interviewed is whether you let yourself see the choice. That's the bigger dimension, right?
There are two forces that happen, that sorta collude, to have us not see the steps we are taking. The first one is we're very confident that we see things as they are. There are surveys that show 90% of the people think they are more moral than average. As you get into situations where your self-image is at stake, you need that promotion to feel good about yourself, where the economics are there, are we going to be able to feed our family. There are a lot of incentives to respond to group think... There are situational factors there that tell you to think “Ah, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s happening way over in Africa or South America. It can't be that bad." Situationally, we’ll slip because we have a lot of self-interest in not seeing and it’s hard to make ourselves see.
But, once we’ve crossed one of those lines, we’re also wired to self-justify it. We will literally change our values to make ourselves right in retrospect.
So, once you combine those two things you get a slippery slope. You get a migration, a climitization, a splitting-off of some of those things we cared about as children or maybe some distortions in our self-perceptions as we rationalize.
We all do this. It’s human nature. And I think the way back out of it is to examine it and face it and admit it we may be off-track occasionally.
As you wrote this book, who was the reader you had mind? Who were you talking to as you wrote this book?
You know I went to business school. And many of classmates are in relatively high positions 20 years out, now we're getting our reunion. Many had started businesses, but many were in the middle.
I was thinking about that mid-level leader who both feels pressure to compromise and to do things that feel just not real; that are fake. They look good, but they’re not really hitting it. Maybe it’s a quality thing or a safety thing or an ethics thing. But, that they are also part of setting the tone for the people who work for them to be able to bring in those contradictions and address them.
I wanted to speak to someone who both could act with more courage themselves, and being strengthened, perhaps shift things and also create the culture for other people to try and do that.
I did try and write it in a way, it’s a little tricky with some of the business examples, sadly, they're from many industries to make it so everyone could read that. But the feedback I’ve been getting is that people with no corporate experience could still understand the stories and examples.
You tell your readers they should expect three things from reading your book. What are those three?
This goes to your reasonable aspiration thing. People say that this is a very negative book. I view it as a very positive thing. I personally call it the Appreciative Inquiry into the dark side of work. Can we look at the really dark stuff so we can free ourselves from it?
Those three expectations follow that track.
One is to understand how unhealthy compromise can become a trap. The way that taking a very narrow perspective on a choice which is usually what happens when we make those unhealthy tradeoffs, can become self-perpetuating and can lead us to do it again and again and get deeper and deeper in.
Secondly, there’s this stance called “redefining the game” that allows you to re-engage at a higher level. Help people understand what that would mean. What’s the shift I could make in the face of very unhealthy pressure where I get to reclaim what my work is about. And let it serve something even if I am in very difficult circumstances. I didn’t want the answer to be ‘you have to check out of the system', at least not all of the time.’
Finally, what are the very practical steps I can take to stretch my ability to redefine the game even in the face of that unhealthy pressure. And get really practical about the things that make it our choice and not just the circumstances we’re in. I came to some skills, some actual tactics. We’ll talk about positive plays you can make. But, also some things that can shield you from that pressure so you don't become susceptible and fall down that slippery slope.
Now. For your readers, what reasonable aspiration or hoped-for future could they expect from reading your book and putting into practice some of your solutions?
Right. And that’s all it takes...right, is a couple of hours to make this BIG change? (Laughter)
I view the book as part of a reinforcement system for folks. My aspiration for them is that they feel validated with what they were sensing in organizational life. There’s a big gap between the stories we tell about what it’s like to work for a good company and much of the experience.
I wanted them to feel validated that 'Yes, there are some messes, even in the best company'. And to feel that freedom and greater creativity in the face of contradictions in the organization that they struggle with. And then feel that they have so many more options to try, to experiment with, that they could be courageous with.
Not all at once. But in small ways, gradually expand their range until they get to a point where they are a positive force, that they are a part of helping people realize that “Yes, there are choices. It’s messy. Companies don’t always live up to what they say they’re going to do.”
And there’s this transition people told me about in their personal stories that I would wish for the reader. The author of Right Risk wrote that “If you’re really grounded in what matters it doesn’t feel terrifying, the risk-shift.”
That’s what I’d like to have people come out of this with.
Whew! I love that! Say that quote again about being grounded!
"If you’re really grounded in what matters to you"...if something kicks in and says “this is my son we’re talking about and if he’s going to have a good life. NO! I’m not working every weekend for the next two years.”
Right? It just kicks in. You get creative and you start to negotiate. You get clearer on what you stand for.
Some people listening may think your book is merely about ethics in the workplace. But it's not. It's more than that. How did you go beyond the traditional discussions about ethics and its challenges in the workplace?
If there’s time, maybe I’d ask you to say the same.
The field of ethics is a very broad topic. But in every day use, it usually means something like:
“Be good. Follow the rules. Don’t be bad”.
And I use the phrase “thriving at work without selling your soul” to try and expand our sense of what this is about. It’s not that little voice saying:
“What do you do when...you find out a vendor who wants to give you a kickback.”
It’s not just about those exceptional circumstances where we find an ethical issue. It’s about really keeping whatever you consider your soul, your essence, who you are, your adult sense of self-respect and what your life is about which means being able to keep your commitments, your professional standards. One of the greatest areas where people felt they had to compromise was being forced to do work they felt less than proud of.
The strange thing is I haven’t seen a lot written about this in the professional world. It's more from the psychology world. But, that sense of integrity actually feels good. It’s not just “don’t be bad or be good.” This is a nice way to live. It gives you more vitality and energy.
What I was hoping to do was not tell people what their values should be, but how to live up to the values they already hold, based on the best understanding that’s out there, and in the face of some of the tricky and psychological factors I already mentioned were out there.
The field of positive psychology and happiness has covered a lot of this ground. From a completely different angle of “how do you be happy?” they have studied a lot about this. Studies of ethics and right and wrong tend to focus on the elephant rider and which way to go.But we all know if we try to start an exercise program or a diet or avoid bad habits with our partners, that it’s much harder to turn the elephant, managing how we act under pressure and with all these forces acting on us. That’s the real art.
What is an unhealthy compromise? Where are the lines crossed between healthy and unhealthy? How would we identify it as we approach that line.
Given what I told you earlier, that the perceptual aspect of even just noticing there was a choice is one critical dimension.
So, the first thing I have to say is “What is a compromise?” A "compromise" is when you give up something because you can’t have everything we want. So, some concession is needed. Just to be real and practical. We can’t have every thing all at once, every employee at the top of their game and highly sought after, best in class, and pay the wages we can in a startup, most of the time.
In the field of conflict resolution, compromise as a strategy is often viewed as a lazy way out because you didn’t really explore whether there was room to expand the pie. So, you just cut it 50/50.
And I am referring in some ways to that, know what I mean?
The way I’m looking at it is a healthy compromise is just that:
making concessions to reality; dealing with reality.
You’re doing it in a way that aligns with your priorities and values. That fit. “You know what? Feeding my kids is more important than seeing them all the time.” As hard a choice as that is. It's a necessary sacrifice. It’s extremely pragmatic.
What you might call a gray area... I would say that there are many areas of healthy compromise that are just hard and you have to do things. If you or I were in the Third Reich, we might have some pretty hard compromises to make in order to protect our family and be forced to confront those value choices that say:
- Do I value life over liberty?
- Do I value my family over the kids down the street?
Those are really difficult things.
But, when you make the choice in alignment with your values, that you really put what was really higher for you first, then it’s hard. But it's not a devil's bargain; you don’t lose that sense of who you are and being right with yourself.
Basically, you’re always making sure you are trading off something less important for something more important. This requires some self-knowledge. And as I said recognizing that you are at a choice.
And unhealthy compromise is the opposite. It has a visceral feeling because part of you knows. People would describe to me that they were sick to their stomach or felt like they were weaseling or they were caving. You might tell yourself it’s necessary. But usually in hindsight it’s misaligned because you gave up on something higher because you did not want to face some thing.
I’ll give you an example. There was a single mom. Kinda got her hackles up because some looked at her as unfit or unworthy. She made up her mind that she was going to be a winner. She went into the workplace and said "I don’t care if I don’t have a college degree, I’ll do whatever it takes". And she drove herself and her family like a machine. Pretended like she didn’t have kids. Left them alone as long as she needed. Went for everything. Was cutthroat.
And somewhere about the time her daughter was 18 and her son was 20, her kids sat her down and said “Mom, don’t tell us that you’re doing this for us. We don’t like you very much. This is not, you cannot tell yourself that you’re making these sacrifices because it is necessary to give us this fancy vacation and nice home. This is not who we want to be with you.”
And she lost her relationship with her daughter for a good, long period of time. And in retrospect, it was an unhealthy compromise that she had not faced along the way. Because she got hooked into the lure.
That’s what traps do. Traps give you a lure or a threat and cause you to narrow your focus. You don’t recognize there’s a catch.
That takes us to our next question. You’ve already answered it. But maybe it deserves a little more attention. Describe this trap of compromise. What is the Compromise Trap?
And it was interesting with the cover of the book. We were tempted to put a mouse trap or a bear trap. But, I don’t think that’s the kind of trap it is. It’s a very interesting one. It’s more like quicksand or credit card debt or a con. You signed up to do something sleazy but you don't dare come clean and show how you were wrong and so you end up digging yourself deeper.
The way it works is that it’s some kind of threat or lure. Some temptation. For many people in the business setting it’s “I’m getting to the top...I’m going to be a winner. I’m going to be in.“ There’s some kind of lure or threat that leads you to do whatever it takes and underestimate that cost, underestimate that catch, that’s going to come back to bite you.
I’ve found out that there are far more costs to compromise than we normally think about and most people underestimate them. Those costs, things like the stress you create, the way you tune out the information so you don’t feel uncomfortable, the way you start to focus more on external validation for things, leaves you feeling less secure, less strong, less big. So that the next time you face a pressure, a threat or a lure, you’re more likely to say "I just have to! I couldn’t miss this promotion! I gotta get there!"
And what happens is this process keeps compounding and through the process of self-justification and rationalization you keep telling yourself you’ve got to do this.
And if it progresses, you get to the point where we talk about the word demoralized. I find it a fascinating word. If you look at the definition it has 3 aspects to it:
- You lose your confidence, your courage, and discipline.
- You get confused and disoriented.
- You lose your moral bearing.
And, when you're in that state, it makes it very hard to be courageous. Basically, you’re chewing away at your own courage.
The best analogy for that is the monkey hand trap. In southeast Asia they put food in a gourd and there’s a small hole. And the monkey can reach his hand in when his hand is empty to grab the food. But with the food in his hand, he can’t get his hand out! He’ll stay there until he’s caught, trying to get this food that he can’t eat. Right?
That’s how the compromise trap works. As long as you get hooked into getting all the validation and treats, rewards and external confirmation that you’re talented and competent and successful, then you end up being willing to not come clean and make the sacrifices to get out of those compromise traps.
The moment you do, everything opens up. Many people have told me stories about that.
I think it’s hopeful, right? It’s us that chooses when we’re going to release yourselves.
And the irony isif you go back, many people use the term ‘Faustian bargain’. It was amazing the metaphors that people came up with. And ‘Faustian bargain’ and ‘selling your soul’ were over half the metaphors people talked about. "Managing, selling my soul, how can I get my soul back."
If you read the versions of Faust, the moment the character Faust decides "Oh, I love being alive. I enjoy life. I'm fine being human and mortal..." everything shifts. He gets out of the devil's bargain the moment he does that.
What is the going price of our souls in business today? Are our prices going up or down?
That’s a fascinating question.
I think a lot of it has to do with your expectations of what kind of life you can lead and what you’re being groomed by the people around you to consider yourself a valid, successful, adult.
And, whatever you think you need to do to get there is usually the price. It may be hard work and that’s a healthy compromise area. But, the things you have to do that feel sleazy and undermine your values and that becomes the price your soul.
I think, from what I’ve been observing in my conversations and I may be in touch with more idealistic people now, it’s becoming higher. People are much less willing to sell their soul for the appearance of success or the appearance of being admired or being sought after or being famous.
One evidence is the Harvard MBAs in 2009 crafted a Hippocratic Oath for MBAs that talks about first committing to serving the greater good rather than putting their interests above all. And they did it because they wanted their degree to mean more. And they’re taking roles that involved sacrifices and pay.
And at the same time the executives I know who got laid off during this recession started describing this incredible trend, and I love it, of all these former really tough, power, executives talking with each other . That's very satisfying. They like having friends. They like having time to themselves and working for companies that they believe in. And it’s meeting some of the needs they thought success was going to meet.
This is why the Devil’s Bargain is an interesting metaphor. When you sell your soul it feels like tempting. But what it actually feels like is deadening. Like King Midas, right? King Midas who can’t taste anything. Or Pirates of Th Caribbean where they’re cursed because they can’t enjoy life.
I think people are raising the price on their soul and actually going out for things that involve fun.
You list 6 personal foundations. I read them as 6 pillars to personal integrity, to field-independence and self-sufficiency, six pillars to save your soul, What are these 6? Which one presents the biggest challenge for your audience of clients and prospects?
I think that's interesting to look at them as pillars because that connotes support.
One of the things that people have trouble with at work is when pressure becomes unhealthy. You know, there’s always pressure or temptation to get ahead. But when you’re pressed to do something that crosses that line, you need those pillars to support you, to back you up. An internal source of reinforcement.
And in the stories that I came across with folks there were 6 that I came up with again and again.
The first was Reconnecting to your own strength. Just having confidence, and a direct awareness that you have value to offer. It’s a two-way contract at work. You are needed. And you have stuff that you bring to the party. That helps you not make compromises that are unhealthy.
The second was being able to See the larger field, expanding your perspective, knowing that the challenges you are going through are probably happening to someone else, as well. Seeing how other people live so you realize that living on Central Park in Manhattan is not the only way to have a good life.&
The third was Having a worthy-enough win. That’s something you are going after that activates your creative energies and feels intrinsically satisfying. It keeps you off worrying and comparing your self with other people and whether you’re being respected enough or paid enough. It gives you a different yardstick.
Finding your real team. Having a solid relationship with your family so that they don't become a source of the pressure to do whatever it takes. But, actually, together you focus on what kind of life you want to create together and what those compromises might be. You make the choices together.
Having positive plays. I mentioned this earlier. Having the skills to push back and say 'no' and transform the situation is incredibly powerful and most people don't know it. You have a lot of assumptions about whether you can say 'no'.
The last one is what I call Keeping your own score. Deciding for yourself what’s called winning and not falling in with the default images put in front of us as to what it would mean to be a success. Then you can decouple from all the threats and hype and feedback and threat and just choose the success you want.
I would say the last two are the hardest. Choosing what you want allows you to decouple and get out of the rat race and helps you feel good and generous and happy without forcing you to drop out and be poor.
The 5th one, Having positive plays, once you know you have options, you know how you're going to say 'no' and not kill your career, once you know how to have influence and once you know how to exit that maybe makes a difference, once you know how to make a healthy compromise and get over your own ego, then you’re willing to see the choice points. Because you know you have resources for dealing with them and the whole thing becomes a reinforcing cycle out of the compromise trap and into being a more of a positive force.
And it is courageous in many business settings and be naive to have a reasonable aspiration and in many business settings you have to be very careful about where you reveal that. It was often because they didn't feel comfortable standing apart; they didn't feel comfortable being different.
And that may be more of an issue than having a moral compass.
I use the metaphor of a frog in boiling water to describe a lot of things. Frogs body temps adjust to their surroundings until they're boiled alive. You title chapter two as A Devil's Bargain in Degrees. One of those degrees is the request to compromise objectivity and intellectual honesty. 60% of your respondents report pressure there. Is that the point in that bargaining process where we've lost any leverage?
It’s an interesting way you frame that in terms of losing leverage. Once you’ve gotten there you’re not even aware of it. You contribute, you participate in that process by tuning it out.
Many people who looked back later in their career said “I thought it was ok to be a jerk.”
One woman woke up and said they thought it was for the good of the company. “No one trusted me. I was getting bad information. I was making bad decisions."
But at the time you lose leverage because you are no longer bringing an adult objective lens to a situation that needs it.
Another woman woke up and was looking in the mirror and not recognizing her own face. You change. That’s what we tend to underestimate with unhealthy compromise.
I think this is an absolutely central issue for our economy as we move towards more knowledge work and work that involves judgment.
I saw a statistic recently that real estate appraisers, 90% of them in a period leading up to the financial crisis felt pressured to adjust their numbers based on what the bank wanted to hear.
So many of our roles involve judgment and we adopt a bias and we don’t even know. One of my mentors calls it bounded ethicality. And it’s compounded by the fact that joining corporate life right now with this positive trend towards having positive cultures includes with it this perceived need to be loyal and the need of what people describe as having “to drink the kool-aid” or “be assimilated by the Borg.” You basically sign up to think the way that would be loyal. And in the process you become vulnerable to adopting a bias you don’t even recognize. And unfortunately then losing even your ability to contribute because you’re no longer an independent adult thinker.
Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, I’ve heard, I can't say, I’m not sure. And we see many companies and their leaders enjoying this elixir, to the point of being blind to its outcomes. Once that leverage is lost how does it effect a company's bottomline?
That’s an awful question I just asked you. Was that clear?
That’s fine. Let me go at it.
I think what you're pointing to is some of these dynamics that are very interesting. I think all of us need to be aware of this, because it's not personal then. It’s not weird narcissistic leaders. It’s any person with power. You can be prepared for yourself and you can relate to those people in power knowing that.
I think one of the luxuries of power is that you don’t have to see. There are aspects of reality you are insulated from. That’s what it means to have power. You don’t have to see the hard edges of reality for a time. You can deny reality.
And in every scandal, people I spoke with where people were involved with bosses who are now in jail...read the quotes on Enron... everyone one of them had some comments about how they lost touch with reality. Because it’s so common what we see is the reality. We don’t have a lot of humility that maybe we’re missing something.
We think as human beings that we see it all. We’re denying reality. We’re losing touch with that reality. We’re extremely confident.
The problem is we'll make decisions on that and the ultimate deciders on whether those are good decisions is reality.
The best example of this process is the description of The Compromise Trap at the organization level. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, wrote a less popular book and kind of depressing book called How the Mighty Fall. And as they descend, they get less attached to reality with their goal setting, in their reporting on how well they’re doing with their customers and their costs and when they get bad results showing up on the scoreboard they get frenzied and look for a silver bullet rather than going back to the their value creation process . Then they get into the steady decline looking for savior leaders and end up either dissolving or getting absorbed or just going away.
The saddest example was when Lehman Brothers bought Archstone - Smith the real estate firm. It was a very glamorous deal, right? Lots of high rise apartment buildings in big metropolitan areas. And that’s what put their debt load over the top and contributed to the demise of Lehman Bros. and how many other companies?
What's the most prevalent misconception about compromise? How is that seen in a business setting?
One reason I want to talk about compromises is that's the moment where you can make a difference. It’s that moment where you have a feeling. You have a gut feeling, we talked about. We may be tuning stuff out but there’s some part of us that can recognize this is a compromise and we can stop and weigh it.
So, what I hoped was when I outlined some of the misconceptions was people would correct for some of the ways we make bad choices. For me, Chapter 3, that’s the heart of of the book’s value. Learn these misconceptions and you will be well-armed against getting into this compromise trap.
The most prevalent of the 10 that I identified through my interviews and research was this belief that if you worked for the good guys, if you worked for a leader you believe in or a company that has strong values you believe in, you won’t face unhealthy pressure to compromise.
And the first person I interviewed articulated this to me.
" I work for this great company and they have all these great green products and I'm on a mission and I don't have unhealthy pressure to compromise."
And 6 months later, this was literally the first person I interviewed and now I was 25 interviews in, he called me and he said:
" You have to interview me again. It's become like Who Killed the electric car. We made all these promises and a good half of them are not coming true. And I've made promises to customers...what do I do now? "
So, this idea that the good guys won’t create that pressure sets you up to be even more disillusioned. These are people you believe in. People describe loving the leaders they worked for, even the ones that are now in jail.
What happens is you become cynical, less willing to commit. Leaders wonder why their employees won’t engage.Right?
And a recent study shows that cynicism is an incredibly strong predictor of dishonest behavior on your part. Once you think “Oh, these people are lying. They don’t mean it.” then you feel justified. So, that to me is the one that would be the most damaging misconception.
We are a critical part of helping a company live up to its promises. It's not automatic. And there will be unhealthy pressure.
That’s such a great thing you do. You rephrase compromise from something you dread, from one of lost opportunity to one of doing something to make a difference, to move forward to our purpose, to something higher or greater.
Do you mind if I riff on this for a moment? I'm so excited about this prospect. I'd love to share another data point on that.
I just put a blog post titled The upward spiral. [Excellent post] It’s where someone went “oh, my god it’s not just possible that we could create a downward spiral but it's possible that we could create an upward spiral of ethics.” And I think the MBA Oath is one example of that. But there’s research that shows we are so susceptible to the influences that we will do better things if someone around us will encourage us, including employees encouraging bosses.
The most pronounced example I know of this is a self-scored math test where a lot of participants were cheating. Over half the people cheated. And these were students in top MBA schools. When they asked the people before they took the test “how many of the Ten Commandments do you remember?” not do you believe them or is this your faith or is this the right thing, just “how many do you remember”. The percent that were cheating went from over 50% to zero.
What if rather than trying to root out the bad apples, we were just trying to be part of each other’s systems to live up to the values we have, knowing we all are fallible and tune out things and have blind spots.
One of the many things I liked about your book was your emphasis on taking ownership on redefining the game and changing our roles from being victims to being leaders. You talk about the power of positive plays. What are some of those steps you call them Positive Plays, the moment you can make a difference.
Knowing you have these skills and you have 5 things you can do in these situations arms you and gives you confidence to choose and stop and look. Most people fall into the compromise situations thinking they can either play the game and go along or drop out and pay enormous consequences.
When you realize it doesn’t even help the other side for you to do that, then you get into this “I can get creative here. I can try something different here because people aren’t seeing the real consequences of what’s going on here.” Or “I can’t deal with the way it's headed. I need to do something creative here.”
And I identified 5 things that you can do in any situation. There are variations. You may want to practice. There are skills to build on.They are not stuff you're going to do perfectly from the start
But they give you options. And once you begin to think about your options you’re far out of the compromise trap and you’re more likely to make a well-considered compromise if you had to.
So the first one is weigh it out and discover “yes, this is a healthy compromise. This is what I need to do to best meet my values in the best possible way given my circumstances. “ So, weigh it out, consider the consequences, get over your ego and then take responsibility for how you do it. Be clear: “I’ll do it this once. I need to do it for a month. I’ll miss my kids. But I’m not setting a precedent.”
The second one is having candid conversations. It is amazing how many people ended up in jail because they were not willing to admit they had missed their target to their boss. Or an accountant brought down a whole savings and loan industry in Ohio in the late 80’s because he didn’t want to admit to his partners he’d made a mistake inadvertently in some annual reports. He got in trouble because he intentionally misrepresented the reports.
Skillful influence. This is the biggest bucket. And this one takes a lot of learning.
But taking the perspective of asking:
“How can I help this system learn”. Where would the data come from that they would trust, if not from me, to make a difference?"
The guy who was worried about the product launches I told you about earlier, basically went to his boss and said:
“ I think you must know., but maybe you don't know about the consequences that might come from making these budget cuts. How do you want to handle this? ”
And he got very creative with influencing the situation with data and offline conversations and very sincere concern instead of being an employee griping.
The 4th one is setting positive limits. That’s basically the ability to say “no”. One of the people I most admire and have learned the most from is the co-author of Getting to Yes , who also wrote a book in 2006 called The Power of a Positive No. I helped him with examples for that book. There are an incredible number of examples of say a front line employee saying no to a negative loan that positively influenced 5 levels of leaders above them.
Finally, you need to be able to exit. You always need to be ready to exit. If they ask you to do something to hurt someone or cause enormous damage regardless if there's a sacrifice we need to be ready to leave. But there are ways that can help a company avoid a mistake, understand what's at stake and maybe even get better because of the way you exit.
There are two parts to helping people learn as part of the skillful influence. One is that we individually have these blind spots that we talked about earlier. We don’t see stuff; we want things to be a certain way; we're overwhelmed. But also, what we’re talking about here is combining intelligence. For knowledge work, and in particular the people on the frontline may know something more than the people above.
So, yes, you’re going to see something they call the pointy end of the chisel that is not going to be clear to the other parts of the organization. You need to be willing to listen, too.
But you are a part of having that become a part of the greater intelligence. Questioning that assumption that it's obvious, that they know and just don’t care is one of the biggest shifts in our follower roles.
We’ve reached the imagination moment in our show. Let’s imagine for a moment, that your assistant waves frantically at you right now. You wave her off...
Can’t you see I’m on the phone?
But, she persists. And she mouthes...
It’s President Obama!
Sure enough, President Obama has called. And when you speak to him he says:
Elizabeth, you’re spot on. Our nation is engulfed in an unhealthy compromise. We’ve struck too many faustian bargains. What can we do? What are three things we can do right now to transform our choices into healthy compromise? Come on up to the White House...
What do you tell him?
The first one, that may surprise you, but I think this is an important stance for us and that’s to ask:
“How are you holding up? How you doing in the midst of all this? Dang, you got a lot to deal with. ”
It’s such a comfort to know that there are leaders bearing up these responsibilities and dilemmas and we get to point out when they’re not doing it.
But that’s the problem. We need to share in the responsibility. And I appreciate the way Obama reframes the conversation to:
“We all have a shared interest in this. We need a budget together."
It's such a comfort knowing that their are leaders dealing with all these things and we get to point out their mistakes. That would be the first one, to offer support for him and all the other leaders who are bearing up under these things and stop projecting onto politicians the worst in human nature.
The 2nd is to encourage him and the rest of us to keep redefining the game in terms of what do we want to create as a country. What is our worthy-enough win as a country.
I’m hearing on both sides, the left and the right, a lot of similar values: personal responsibilities and liberty and freedom. There are differences in how we get there.
But what is it we stand for, that is joint, that is that worthy enough win to create together.
And in particular, I would encourage him and, if I could speak to them, the press to experiment in ways of reporting that talks in terms of that worthy-enough win and what the contributions from each side should be as opposed to vetting out which side should win. 'Cause that forces all the dialogue into a polarizing frame.
The last thing I would do is invite citizens to have to weigh these tradeoffs instead of having to project it on to leaders. So that we have to face these very hard choices. We can point out to other people the very unhealthy compromises but when we get deep into the costs and the realities we’ll be much more aligned when we have to wrestle with these issues ourselves.
I'm very excited by the participative democracy, deliberative democracy, movement that has us doing that, not just voting. But really chewing on budgets and priorities for city councils. I think we need more of that.
We need to be reiterating that and keep re-anchoring this conversation to these priorities. And then we can use data to get to the best ‘how’s’.
Leaders are readers. Jim Rohn said that. I just quote him. You’re a leader. What are you reading these days...in all your free time. I say that with a big smile on my face ‘cause I know you’re so busy. Fun or work, fiction or non.
A couple of things that have been really interesting to me.
The Devils are Here. Anything with a faustian bent is what I’m interested in. This is a detailed description of the mortgage-backed securities and how it evolved. And it really reinforces that we can’t point our fingers at any bad apples. This is systemic stuff. It's very interesting to watch.
The Mars Trilogy. It’s this very detailed account of how we might create a culture on another planet. And all the working out of technology and democracy to put that in place.
The Art of Convening. It’s about how to have these deep conversations to solve these problems together. That’s an inspiring one.
Where are you speaking where we might come and see you?
I’m excited to be speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on April 13th. You can register for that on my website at Worklore.
I’ll be speaking at the Net Impact Group in San Francisco. And then I’m going to New York to speak at the Rotary the 3rd week of April. I’m open to speaking at any group in that area.
I’m working with many leaders who are trying to stop putting pressure on the employees to compromise. That’s the area I’ve been putting my passion.
Thank you, Elizabeth.