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The Value and Challenge of Compromise

The Value and Challenge of Compromise

Issue 148, February 22, 2024

How many times did your parents tell you to, “Pick your battle.” And then in the next breath say, “Never compromise your values.” That ambiguity could be confusing to a child, but is mind-bending to an adult navigating our complex, polarized society. Increasingly public opinion is becoming less compromising, leaving common ground hard to find.

Compromise: Positive or Negative?

In its most basic sense, a compromise can be understood as a form of agreement that has the purpose of accommodating conflicting views or claims, according to Friderike Spang, senior researcher at the University of Lausanne. sets up compromise with a more negative bias: concession to something derogatory or prejudicial. Consider concession when one doesn’t want to confront or avoid an argument or upset a partner, family member, friend, or supervisor. Concessions don’t rock the boat.

Taking a more positive position, states “Compromise can be defined as finding a middle ground or reaching an agreement that satisfies the needs and wants of all parties involved. It is an essential skill in interpersonal and professional relationships as it allows individuals to navigate conflicts and disagreements in a constructive manner.”

More simplistically speaking, we add to this debate a thought about the word: com (communal) promise.

Compromise in society and organizations is nuanced. It can be personal or objective. There is moral compromise that involves principles, “that is, beliefs and values that are based on moral convictions and that are often part of one’s identity,” says Spang. She adds, “And then there is non-moral compromise, in contrast, pertaining to material interests such as income and wealth.”

Practicing Compromise

Compromise is a touchstone for controversy. On the one hand, finding common ground can be rewarding and a positive outcome in the face of conflict. But Jan Fortune writes in Medium, “Compromise is about reaching a settlement, whether or not it feels authentic. Compromise is all too often about accepting an outcome that has lower standards than we want to countenance.” Simply stated, it is mediocrity. It is a sign of weakness. It is giving in. It eats away at self-respect.

On the flip side, authentic compromise requires humility and flexibility, not lip service. It needs active listening. It requires critical thinking not groupthink. It demands not acquiescing to projects against your better judgment. It begs for maintaining standards. It asks living by your values and being consistent but not inflexible These are not throwaway platitudes. Rather, compromise works when you don’t lose yourself in the process.


When facing a professional situation that requires compromise, Joe Stables, a veteran marketing professional, advises to be clear about your values well in advance, “Trying to be something you’re not creates inner conflict that will cause you to hate life. Anytime you need to put on a front, hold back, or disguise who you really are inside, you’ll feel conflicted. The reason is because you aren’t being true to yourself.” Many co-workers fear they may be judged for expressing their opinions in conflict. Staples counsels, with rare exception you’ll be admired and respected for being true to what you believe. Being mindful is a critical skill, “Understand the difference between being true to your values and pushing them on others. Any good leader will respect you for staying true to yourself, but that doesn’t mean that you constantly need to be trumpeting your values to others, or even worse pushing others in an attempt to get them to adopt what you believe,” he adds.

Change Management

Change is hard. Resistance to change can create roadblocks in any organization. Co-workers may fear power shifts. They may worry about having to learn a new skill. They fear what they may lose. By nature, people prefer to take the easy pathway when working through any problem, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey write in the Harvard Business Review, “Resistance to change does not reflect opposition, nor is it merely a result of inertia. Instead, even as they hold a sincere commitment to change, many people are unwittingly applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment. The resulting dynamic equilibrium stalls the effort in what looks like resistance but is in fact a kind of personal immunity to change.” They add managers, “must guide people through this exercise with understanding and sensitivity. If employees are to engage in honest introspection and candid disclosure, they must understand that their revelations won’t be used against them. The goal of this exploration is solely to help them become more effective, not to find flaws in their work or character.”

In any conflict resolution, the challenge is to hold onto moral and ethical standards. This can be tough when faced with larger motivations. For example, a principal reason for compromise is financial and short-term gain. Some recent headlines: To meet production schedules, standards are compromised; bolts are missing in a jet fuselage. Vulnerable systems in self-driving vehicles lead to accidents. Those operational compromises can be rectified with more stringent production safeguards. However, it is the ethical/values conflict that requires a more complex resolution,

Conflict Resolution

Compromise plays a leading role in conflict resolution. “It helps to de-escalate tense situations, promote understanding, and prevent further escalation. When individuals are willing to compromise, they open the door for effective communication and collaboration, leading to more positive outcomes,” says
For starters, compromise is not the same as consensus. Stang writes, “Unlike compromise, consensus requires the parties to a disagreement to change their minds on the controversial issue. If a consensus is achieved, this means that the disagreeing parties consider the agreement to be better than (or at least as good as) their initial positions Compromise, in contrast, is characterized by the fact that disagreeing parties hold on to their opposing views. In a compromise, disagreeing parties agree to partially concede their claims to the demands of the other party, but they do not agree with the other party’s demands.”

Pádraig Ó Tuama is an Irish theologian, writer, and highly respected conflict transformation practitioner. His advice is to try to find neutral ground. He says, “There are equal and opposite sides to every debate, but they all deserve a place at the (physical or virtual) table.” He advises not to fear certain conflicts because they actually offer both parties the opportunity to learn and grow. As reported by Franklin & Marshall College, Tuama says, “In some instances, two groups cannot find common ground, either due to disagreements over fundamental values or because of an oppressive power dynamic. Meeting in the middle is not peace, it is failure since this too often results in the continued oppression of vulnerable groups. Professionals should put effort into educating the oppressor. They too, are worthy of cooperation so that they can change. Turning the conversation not on the issue itself, but on how each side’s values influence how they feel about a divisive topic. This may lead to a greater understanding of why others hold their beliefs even if it does not bring resolution.”
Spang adds, “Compromise is legitimate if we remain true to our views while not enforcing them on others. A legitimate compromiser therefore displays the following mindset: ‘I do not expect you to execute this improvement, or to surrender that prejudice. But at any rate, it shall not be my fault if the improvement remains unknown or rejected.’ In contrast, compromise is illegitimate if we pretend to accept what we consider to be untrue. Illegitimate compromise is therefore based on the following mindset: ‘I cannot persuade you to accept my truth; therefore, I will pretend to accept your falsehood.’”

Positive Compromise

When compromise is successful it is not one-sided; it is mutual. The intent behind compromise needs to be good. It cannot be manipulated for personal gain. Clear, empathetic communication leads to successful compromise. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”

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