the shape of leadership

Five Signs You Are Drifting Towards Compromise

Are you in danger of crossing the line?

Carey Nieuwhof on September 11, 2018

How does compromise start? Sometimes it begins intentionally. You know you’re cheating. You know you’re lying. You took the bait. But often, compromise doesn’t begin that way. It happens more subtly.

As Paul the apostle admitted, the struggle has an innate quality to it. Compromise is in you, and life brings it out of you. Maybe you’re surrounded by people who compromise, who have made a hundred little concessions. It’s not hard to drift. It’s not difficult to give in. Go with the flow, and before you know it, you’ve crossed the line.

So what are some telltale signs you’re drifting, that you’re not becoming who you intend to be? Here are five. 

1. There’s a Growing Gap Between Your Public Life and Private Life

Your character is compromised when you can no longer tell the world the truth. You project an image of yourself that isn’t accurate. You do a simple and innocent version of this when you have guests to your home for dinner. You mow the lawn, clear the crumbs off the kitchen counter, tell the kids to clean their rooms, pick up the towels off the bathroom floor, and put out fresh flowers. Then you pretend you live like this all the time.

Sprucing up your home for guests is pretty benign, but more serious is when you project to the world an exterior image of who you are that doesn’t truly reflect your interior life. Watch for any gap you see between your words and your deeds. When you talk grace, but you snap at your spouse, kids, and staff, that’s a gap. When you talk financial responsibility with your colleagues, but your personal finances are a mess, that’s a gap. When you say people matter, but you make zero time for anyone in need, that’s a gap.

You hate this kind of gap when you see it in others. You call it hypocrisy, and that’s exactly what it is. The English word hypocrisy stems from the Greek word for “actor.” A hypocrite was an actor who donned a mask to portray a character. That’s what hypocrites do: they pretend to be someone they’re not.

While it’s easy to spot hypocrisy in others, it’s much harder to see it in ourselves. That’s because we judge ourselves by our intentions and other people by their actions. It’s completely unfair but exceptionally common. You know what you intended to do or how you wish you had responded. So you cut yourself some slack. Then you put a thin veneer over the action that masks it and makes it look a little more like the intention. And that’s the beginning of the disconnect between who you are and who you want to be. 

2. You’re Hiding Things

As the gap grows between your real self and the projection of your false self, you won’t want anyone to discover the truth about you. Compromise eventually leads to cover-up.

Because you realize (even on the subconscious level) that you’re not who you should be, you’re ashamed to admit what you’re doing. You tell the accountant to make some changes in case you get audited. You delete your browser history. You change the password on your phone and tell your spouse that work required it. You fabricate stories to conceal the facts.

Cover-up is almost daily fodder for newspapers because it’s so common in business and politics. It’s typical in those fields because it’s so common everywhere. We all start misleading and misinforming others whenever we feel ashamed of what we’ve done or who we’ve become. It’s just that most of us never make the news. 

3. You Fail to Follow Through on What You’ve Said

Another sign of compromise is when you commit to things that you never end up doing. That may be a common human condition, but it intensifies as you compromise more and more.

Sure, you say you want to get together with your parents and siblings, but your real priorities have shifted. You promise to meet up soon because that’s what decent people say, but you just don’t deliver. Similarly, you told your team the report would be done by a certain deadline, but it wasn’t. You were just too preoccupied with other things. You promised your spouse a date night, but it never happened because, once again, you got slammed with more urgent matters.

While it’s easy to spot hypocrisy in others, it’s much harder to see it in ourselves.

No big deal, you say? If you think your lack of follow-through involves only little things not worthy of a second thought, just know that this is exactly how compromise begins.

4. You Justify Your Bad Actions and Decisions

There’s a certain point when you compromise regularly enough that you decide to stop apologizing and instead start justifying. There’s a reason you are the way you are.

Everyone in your field behaves the way you do; to change would mean you’d lose. You can’t help it that your marriage has grown cold; it happens to all couples. Your irritability is because of the overwhelming pressure you’re under; there’s nothing you can do about it. And your greed, well, you deserve something good after how hard you’ve worked; who could fault you for that?

When you start justifying your bad behavior and decisions, you begin to believe your condition is inevitable. You shift blame to circumstances “beyond your control.” You convince yourself that if others were in your shoes, they would be just as cynical, unhappy, and compromised as you are. They just don’t get it. 

5. Your Life Has Become All About You

When you keep compromising, eventually you craft a life that is almost entirely self-centered. And that’s the opposite of who you know you should be. Any value system worth having is focused on others, not self. The problem, of course, is that people take time, attention, and love. And you don’t have time or energy for that. Not anymore.

If it’s all about you, you’ve done more than rent your soul. Perhaps you’ve moved into a long-term lease.

Nobody Will Ever Pay You to Fix This

When you think about how behavioral dynamics work, it’s no surprise that compromise is so easy.

First, as Paul so brilliantly chronicled in the Book of Romans, compromise is a staple of the human condition. We have a natural inclination toward it. Second, pretty much nobody is ever going to ask you to develop your character. Maybe your spouse will, but that’s about it. Will other people address it? Maybe, but not from the perspective of encouragement. Instead, they’ll just penalize you if you don’t. They’ll fire you, drop you as a friend, or divorce you. Rarely will anyone encourage you to work on your character proactively.

Contrast that with your competency. People will push you to develop your competency. Your parents likely pushed you to get an education. Competency is so highly valued in our culture that people will often pay you to improve your skill set. Your employer will cover the costs for you to go to a conference or take the training courses you need, or perhaps even fund the tuition for your next degree.

Plus, competency is fun. Who doesn’t want to learn a new skill or develop a talent? Devouring a book, listening to a podcast, or taking an online class can be really stimulating. You tend to see tangible results. That skill you picked up is something you can implement this month. That hack you learned has an immediate payoff.

But who’s pushing you to be a better you? Who’s speaking into your life to point out those deep-seated character issues that need to be worked on? Right, cue the silence.

Often, there are only a few people. Worse, maybe there’s nobody.

And let’s be honest: character development is far more painful than skill development. Working on your character forces you to go into the crags and crevices of your heart. It encourages you to look at your past to forge a better future. It makes you look in the mirror.

When you tackle your character, though, things get uncomfortable. The blaming stops. The excuses get pushed to the side. And honesty — painful honesty — is required. You finally have to deal with you. Which explains why it’s so much easier to keep focusing on your competency and keep compromising your character. Character is one of those ethereal concepts that doesn’t feel actionable because it seems so airy. But actually that’s not true. You can develop your character in the same way you develop a muscle: by exercising it.  

Excerpted from Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the Seven Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences. Copyright © 2018 by Carey Nieuwhof. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.


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