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The Compromise Trap

The Compromise TrapStay true to yourself and be a positive force at work.

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Preparing for Courage: The MBA Oath

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Common Misconceptions about Compromise and How the MBA Oath Helps Address Them

I remember looking out the picture-glass window at the glow of the city lights, then noticing my hand shaking slightly as I reached for my glass of chardonnay. I made an effort to settle myself inwardly as I looked across at my client sitting in the booth opposite me. Gwen was a very tall woman, a force-to-be-reckoned-with-executive, CIO of a $4 billion dollar company, and about 20 years my senior. And I had invited her out for a glass of wine because I was afraid of her.

Ever since my preliminary meeting with her team during my first consulting gig out of business school (HBS ’91), I had found myself alternating between aggressiveness and avoidance in working with Gwen. I cringed one day when I discovered I had “inadvertently” left her off a meeting invitation list. I realized I faced a choice: I could continue as I was and tap dance through my explanations about why the project was stalled due to lack of buy-in from her team or I could reach out and try to form a working relationship with this powerful person.

So I bit the bullet and invited her to meet after work. She quickly agreed and suggested her favorite wine bar at the top of a high-rise with a gorgeous view of the city. After some opening small-talk, I told her flat-out that I had let myself become intimidated by her and I didn’t want to be. That I thought we could create something valuable for her company if we could learn to partner more effectively and that I was curious how she got to be so powerful.

To my absolute surprise, she didn’t react with scorn or criticism or even a pep talk. Instead, she revealed something I will never forget.  She told me that she didn’t recall when she became so powerful, and it was troubling her a bit to think about it. “I joined the company to change things,” she told me. “There were very few women leaders in those days and I wanted to help dissolve the glass ceiling.  I told myself I needed to start by earning power, and once I had it I would be able to influence things for myself and other women. But I kept putting off the moment when I would take a risk to make those changes. Now I’m at the top and I’ve gotten into the habit of going along with the way things are. This conversation is making me rethink what I want to do about that.”  I don’t remember much of the conversation after that, because I was no longer intimidated. We were simply two human beings talking about the challenges and satisfactions of work.

This story is a touchstone in my personal efforts to live and work with integrity for two reasons. First, it reminds me of the power of authentic interactions for keeping aspirations, commitments and better instincts alive, especially across generations.  And second, it highlights some of the dynamics of compromise that I’ve since come to study in more depth. Because of these, I think it shows the potential for how powerful a public declaration such as the MBA Oath can be.

Ever since I heard about the MBA Oath (, I have been excited about the prospect of clarifying our professional commitments as leaders and managers, and putting them in the context of the power and responsibility we hold in modern free market economies. Yet I also understand the questions about whether, having signed an oath, we are likely to act any differently under pressure.

I understand these questions because I have just spent four and a half years speaking to professionals about compromise at work: what pressures they experienced, how they adapted, how they didn’t, and what helped them stay true to the person they most wanted to be. And what surfaced in those interviews was how easy it is to make a “devil’s bargain by degrees”, incrementally eroding our principles and values without being able to exactly pinpoint the moment of choice. Like Gwen, many of them found they had fallen into compromises they later questioned or regretted. Conversely, when those same people told me about times they had acted in alignment with their values under pressure, it was often because they had a clear sense of purpose and mission, a reason for courage that put the risks of standing up in the larger context of what they really cared about, who they truly admired, and how much freedom they actually had to choose how they engaged at work.

This is why the MBA Oath represents such a powerful opportunity. It has the potential to serve as a touchstone to activate clarity and courage in the melee of today’s turbulent business environment.

You may wonder at my use of the term “activate”. We often think of ethics and values as qualities you either have or you don’t. But research is showing that it is more accurate to view integrity as a quality that we can activate (or override) in ourselves and others. For example, consider this study by Dan Ariely and his colleagues at the Sloan School of Management at MIT: In a self-scored math test with financial incentives, 64% of the participants cheated. Yet when participants were asked just prior to the test to reflect on the source of their values, cheating dropped to zero.

Not knowing how susceptible we are to situational influences can lead to less ethical behavior because we are unprepared and ill-equipped to counter these powerful situational forces – or fail to create the set of relationships, touchstones and practices that enable us to self-activate our values regardless of the environment. During my interviews, I discovered ten misconceptions about compromise and ethics that individuals once held and later questioned, or that social psychology and organizational studies suggest may not be accurate.

In my view, the MBA Oath is particularly compelling because it is crafted to provide an antidote to most of these misconceptions, and if supplemented with ongoing reinforcement, can address the others.

Ten Misconceptions About Compromise at Work

Misconception #1: Compromise is always healthy.

Misconception #2: Good companies and leaders don't create unhealthy pressure to compromise.

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.

As you can see, the MBA Oath is of immense value as a touchstone that keeps us connected with our highest and best selves. Having that clarity and courage benefits us, because it keeps us in touch with the source of creativity, vitality and self-respect that allows us to create value and reap its rewards. It is better for our businesses because it shifts the focus off clever shortcuts onto the long-term drivers of innovation and value. And it serves our society, because it activates a much broader leadership perspective in the institutions that have so much power to shape the rules of the game.

But as skeptics would point out, an oath is not enough. We need to go beyond a one-time declaration to create an internal reinforcement system that keeps it alive. We need to maintain the relationships, practices, and simple contact with the world that calls us back to reality when we are off-track or kidding ourselves, so myopically focused on our next promotion that we do not see the clear-cutting of the forest, let alone the trees.

My greatest hope for how we create this reinforcement is by reaching across generations, as Gwen and I did nearly 20 years ago.

In my view, the oath reflects not only the aspirations of emerging leaders, but a broadening of perspective across all generations of management, prompted by an increasing awareness of the larger consequences of our current ways of doing business.  During the mortgage-lending boom, there were stories of experienced mortgage brokers literally sick to their stomachs about the excesses of that cycle, wondering what their profession had become. HR Directors I know are now coaching senior leaders wondering if there is a way to do something their kids will be proud of, rather than whatever it takes to please their bosses. There is a window of opportunity now, a questioning of the need to play along with the old game that could become a broader effort to reinforce and activate our better instincts whether we are just starting out or, like Gwen, feeling the time is right to reconsider what we use our power to serve.

The simplest way to encourage this virtuous cycle is to read the oath, and if it rings true for you, sign it. (Go to As alumni, we can say “yes” to this stake put in the ground by the next generation. As new MBA’s, we can continue to make our commitment to these tenets more visible. And we can all jointly increase our efforts to address the difficult practical questions that fulfilling this oath and other values-based commitments require.

After our conversation, Gwen and I continued to work together in a balance of tension and alignment. Eventually, she allocated the talent we needed for the project, so that together we dramatically reduced their new product development cycle time while improving risk management and quality.  I am not sure where Gwen came down about making a difference for women in her firm. But I do know that our relationship from then on reflected the sort of mutual respect, constructive challenge, and commitment to serve a larger good that I now hold as a model for more of my professional relationships.

What do you think? Do you think having signed an oath would have mitigated the excesses of the housing boom? What would you include in an oath of your own?

Please share your thoughts.

NOTE: For a limited time, Worklore will offer a 25% discount on purchases of The Compromise Trap for those who review the oath and sign it if it fits for them. To receive your discount: Go to to review the oath, then note the name of the first person to sign the oath (in the Signers of the Oath tab). When you return here to buy the book, you will be asked to enter their last name to receive your 25% discount.

For a .pdf version of this article with full endnotes, please click here.

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