‘Compromising’ has a bad reputation. Although we recognize it is fundamental in making almost every situation we’re in workable and even satisfying, our general reaction upon hearing the word is negative. We imagine someone who’s betrayed themselves by going against an instinct or core belief in order to benefit, or like John B., because of the perceived need to conform.

John is considered by those who have known him for a long time, to be an ethical man. And to be truthful: he prides himself on having strong ethics. One of the reasons – in fact the prime reason – he joined his current company six months ago as a Business Development Manager because after researching the company, and after time spent talking with his prospective boss, he was convinced both reflected his values.

So, John has a challenging, fulfilling job; he’s well compensated, and he works for a seemingly ethical organization and boss. But for some reason, John is not happy. In fact, he’s even thinking of resigning. Lately, he’s been feeling less than confident… buttoned up; less communicative. He’s always considered himself, and been considered, a confident person, and he’s never had trouble saying what’s on his mind. Given that a Business Development Manager must exude confidence, John is right to be concerned.

As he began to explore the reasons ‘why’ with us, he said it all started after the company hired a new president. Here’s what happened in John’s words:

‘The president was introduced at the management meeting last month, and as he began to talk about his aims for the company, I remember thinking that we’d lucked out in getting a great leader, given that he talked a lot about the importance of collaboration and negotiation, and how the sharing of information between areas of the company that were still quite heavily siloed, would help boost sales across the organization’.

‘Two weeks ago, the Business Development Director and I had our first in-depth sit-down with the president. We were going over some of the contracts that had been recently signed and that was when he said that he thought we could be achieving better win rates, and that in his experience, the way to do that was to create incentive plans tied to the achievement of specific objectives that had been pre-determined. I waited for my boss to point out that not only was our sales team already ahead of all other competitors, but that there were proven difficulties with sales incentive programs. I waited for him to talk about the body of research that showed incentive programs could actually worsen results.1 Bu­­t my boss just sat there, nodding and looking interested.’

I was shocked, because I knew from the very first interview I’d had with him that he didn’t think incentive programs were at all helpful, and in fact felt they were detrimental. Why wasn’t he rebutting what the president was saying?

When he finally opened his mouth, everything went downhill, because he not only agreed with the president, but then said he and I would sit down together and work up a plan. The president then said to make sure one of the incentives is an all-expense-paid vacation, because “sales people eat that kind of thing up”.
‘After we left the meeting, I expected the director to offer an explanation about why he hadn’t voiced his opinion about sales incentive programs, but all he said was that I should put some ideas together and we’d sit down over the next couple of days to discuss them.’

‘Perhaps I should have said something then, but to do so would be calling out his behaviour, and more than behaviour, his integrity. What was the use? It was clear he was going to go against what he believed.’

‘Or was he? During the initial interview with me, had he only parroted what I said about incentive programs because my references were glowing and because he clearly wanted to hire me? Did he in fact think incentive programs were good? Or is he going along with the president because the man is his new boss, and because he lacks the courage to go up against him? If that’s the case, then I’ve lost faith in him. Where’s his willingness to fight for what he thinks is right?’

John is in a tough situation. He has the sense he’s being quietly coerced into compromising his values.

What to do?

He has options, and he may be able to see them once he ascertains exactly what’s going on. In other words, has the director compromised himself, or did he always think sales incentive programs were a good idea and he was just parroting John because he wanted to hire him? Then again, the director could be something John hadn’t considered yet: a master at office politics. But to find out if any of those things are true, John is going to have to talk to his boss in an open-minded and non-confrontational way.

Our next issue will look at that conversation, and what came out of it.

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1. There is research showing that incentive programs impinge creative thinking; and in addition, force sales people to stop using practices based on morals, interests, and values, and instead encourage them to concentrate on getting the reward. When sales people do that, they lose pleasure in the sales activity itself. E.g.: 7 Problems with Employee Incentives (The McQuaig Institute Blog)

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