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Compromising at Work

Tim Johns | 8th March 2016

There are few aspects of life that don’t involve making compromises. Every part of our existence involves curtailing individual freedom or postponing desires in order to co-exist with others. We happily obey rules that limit our personal liberty, such as driving on the left or paying taxes, in order to benefit from the security that a civilised society offers. Even those people who opt out make a compromise, trading their freedom against the ability to avail themselves of the many upsides of a consumer society. At a more basic level, successful relationships are based entirely on two people deciding on issues together, something that inevitably involves the art of making sacrifices.

The world of work is no different. But, in this instance, I often get a sense from talking to people just how many have made their compromises unconsciously. They started out perfectly sanguine about what was required from them and what unwritten contract they made with themselves. Before they know it, they have fallen into a routine of long hours, commuting, endless unproductive meetings, bureaucracy, and hierarchies. Work has, for many, become a straight-jacket from which it is difficult to escape until, that is, a way has been found to exist without money. Until then, the need to pay mortgages, school fees and holidays provides a constant reminder to keep working. It is a necessary evil although, as C S Lewis reminded us, we should never mistake necessary evils for good.

Businesses also incentivise people to stay. That can only be a good thing, right? Well, I see so many people who continue to postpone what they really want to do until their long term incentives pay out. These LTIPs or CNCL (crap now, cash later) as I call them, have the effect of rewarding the wrong behaviour. The famous Marshmallow Test experiment of Walter Mischel tried to test whether a child’s ability to defer gratification (one marshmallow now versus three later) could predict the strength of their willpower. These long term incentives, rather than spawning improved performance, have a habit of encouraging people to keep their heads down and stay past their sell-by date. I also see people who have stayed so long that they’ve forgotten what it is that they made those compromises for in the first place. It’s a bit like the reverse of Wilde’s Dorian Grey. In this instance, they’ve grown grey and gaunt after a lifetime of work and now barely recognise the portrait in their loft of them as a young, thrusting person with an ambition for life.

All this occurred to me as I recently read the latest Julian Barnes’ novel, The Noise of Time. It’s a quasi-biographical novel about the life of the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich. It is fascinating and can be read on many levels. But it is essentially about the compromises that Shostakovich makes, both personally and artistically, in order to survive in Stalin’s Russia. As Barnes said: “If you saved yourself, you might also save those around you. And since you would do anything in the world to save those you loved, you did anything in the world to save yourself.” Of course, I am not in any way trying to compare corporate life with the heinous Stalinist regime, but this is, I feel, as good an insight as any into the nature of compromise. People at work do, consciously and unconsciously, make sacrifices that eat into their very nature. And so much so that they move inexorably away from being the person that they used to be. Again, as Barnes says in the novel: “…one of the tragedies life plots for us: it is our destiny to become in old age what in youth we would have most despised.”

Staying true to our dreams and ambitions is tough, because life does require us to make compromises. Life can never be a straight line. But having a sense of one’s non-negotiables – those values and needs that we will not forgo – can help us enormously to navigate our way through life. It is important for us to be conscious of those decisions rather than let them sink below the surface only to re-emerge when it’s possibly too late. And that requires a high degree of bravery. As e e cummings said; “it takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

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