Maintaining Personal Values At Work

Includes an interview with Elizabeth Doty the author of the book- “The Compromise Trap- How to Thrive at Work Without Selling Your Soul”.

In the last century Mahatma Gandhi said -“Work is worship”. Some of the present generation employees while working in known and good organizations say- “My job sucks, my boss is a devil and I am working in hell”. Strong statements there but sometimes the employees believe that they are selling their souls to the organization to earn their salaries. Organizations remind employees of war zones and battle fields, in which they are the foot soldiers continuously facing the firing line. These instances are no longer a one off case, and the numbers of complaining employees are increasing

When employees feel this way, they believe their personal values are compromised at the altar of organization’s success. The psychological wounds are burnouts, stress, depression, anxiety, anger, damaged personal relationships, lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. The belief is that organizations have become such a dominating force in the life of the employee; they do not have any personal choices to make. The scars run deep when they feel that they have compromised on their personal values to retain their jobs. For example, when they compromise on work-life balance which reduces time for their kids and spouse, their guilt is high.

This got me thinking, about compromise. In general, compromising is a good way to get ahead but compromising on fundamental values and principles is destroying the human spirit. Gandhi’s principle was – “All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is surrender. For it is all give and no take.”

As I see it, these compromises have a negative impact on the employee, family, society and the organization. The questions which come up are-“Why would we make compromises that are effectively a surrender? What is the impact on employees, families, society and the organization itself? And what other options do we have, given the intense pressures we can sometimes feel on the job?”

I have outlined my understanding of the issue below. I have also obtained the opinion of Elizabeth Doty, author of the book- The Compromise Trap–How to Thrive at Work Without Selling Your Soul.

Reasons employees compromise personal values.

The working population consists of traditionalists, boomers, Gen X and Gen Y. The perceptions are that traditionalists’ compromise because they respect authority while Gen Y wishes to get ahead in their careers. However, on exploring the inner psychology, the reasons are somewhat different.

When employees feel compelled to compromise their personal values, it is typically as they believe that without following orders he/she will not survive in the organization. They think their sphere of influence is limited and should not say “No” to the orders, as this will have negative repercussions. There is a level of learned helplessness due to which they misconceive that they cannot make choices and the organization controls their life.  Hence, they are irresolute in their decisions and follow authoritative instructions blindly without questioning their merit

According to Elizabeth Doty, certain misconceptions increase the chance of falling into unhealthy compromises- “Professionals under pressure tend to underestimate the negative impact of unhealthy compromise, lose sight of what really matters to them, and exaggerate the risks of saying no.”

Impact of compromises on employee, family and society

The clip of the movie Network when Howard Beale stands up and says “I am mad as hell and I won’t take this anymore” describes the emotional frustration and psychological trauma of the employees.

Every human being has the right to lead a happy and fulfilling life. As individuals our basic requirements from  life is to be professionally successful, have a happy family, have time for hobbies and contribute positively towards the society. In the present scenario employees to be professionally successful have to compromise on other aspects of life. Examples of some of the sacrifices employees are making:

  1. The employee’s work-life balance is deteriorating and employees find reduced personal time. The Center of Work Life Policy has reported that in 2009 the average working hours has increased to 49 per week from 40 in the previous year. 69 percent of participants in the survey said they wouldn’t have left if their companies had offered one or more specific work-life balance options, such as reduced-hour schedules, job sharing, part-time tracks, short unpaid sabbaticals, and flextime.
  2. The working mother’s dependency of income has increased and the time off period for child care has decreased from 3 years to 2.2 years. This will definitely have an impact on society as mothers are generally the best person to raise psychologically balanced and socially intelligent children. Women are finding it tougher to re-launch their careers after a break.

While the above are very visible cases of compromises made by employees, there are a significant number of not so apparent cases.  Incidents like bullying, harassment, workplace aggression etc.  also cause strain on the employee emotionally and psychologically. The cumulative toll on employee well being is high due to these compromises.

In The Compromise Trap, Ms. Doty outlines seven “costs of compromise” to the individual when they go along with unhealthy compromise:

  1. The stress of betraying one’s values (including the costs to our health);
  2. The psychological blind spots we develop as we “tune out” the compromise;
  3.  The tendency to escalate our efforts to “win” to prove the compromise was justified;
  4. Increasing dependence on external validation from bosses and promotions as we lose touch with internal self-approval;
  5. The tendency to attract more bullies as we cave under pressure;
  6. The loss of reputation and trust when we betray other commitments (such as commitments to our families), and 
  7. Inability to focus on the core of our jobs and responsibilities because we are busy “making things look good” in response to pressure.

Impact on organizations

To emotionally protect themselves from the psychological pressures, employees disengage themselves from the organization goals and activities.  On the face of it, these pressures may appear beneficial to the organization, however have monumental side effects which harm the organization.

Gallup’s research on employee engagement indicates:

  • “In world-class organizations, the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is 9.57:1.
  • In average organizations, the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is 1.83:1.

Actively disengaged employees erode an organization’s bottom line while breaking the spirits of colleagues in the process. Within the U.S. workforce, Gallup estimates this cost to be more than $300 billion in lost productivity alone.” The disengaged employee is also considered the toughest customer for change management initiative since he/she is simply disinterested.

From an organization’s risk management perspective, employees perceiving that they have to compromise personal values, indicates an unhealthy organization culture. This shows that when seniors ask/order employees to perform unethical/ illegal activities, employees will not significantly resist or object to it.

For example, a recent survey conducted by Reuters/Ipos indicated that sexual harassment is at dangerous levels in the workplace. The finding was that 1 in 10 workers have been pestered for sex by a senior employer. This increases the organization’s reputation and legal risks.

In addition to employee disengagement and increased risk, Ms. Doty identifies several other costs of compromise to the organization, including poor quality and execution, increased rework, lost customers, higher turnover, brand erosion and missed opportunities to innovate.  She also points out the tendency to increase leadership overload as employees exert less initiative and need more direction.

This clearly indicates that there is a need to change course and build better solutions from employee and organization perspective.

The solution: Employee self-empowerment

I asked Elizabeth Doty-What strategies do you see employees adopting to deal with pressure to compromise? How can they make their lives happier? She replied, “Generally, the root of the problem is assuming that ‘playing along with the game’ will get us what we want. But when we realize the full costs of compromise – to ourselves and our organizations – we see this is a losing proposition. To reclaim our freedom – and our ability to truly add value to our employers – a better strategy is to ‘redefine the game’: deciding for ourselves what we count as winning and losing, what we will and won’t do, what really matters and how we keep score’. 

As described in her book, redefining the game is one of five strategies employees tend to adopt in response to pressure to compromise:

  1. Playing to win –Employees focus on obtaining power and money by making work the center of their lives. They defer their personal dreams till they get the desired position.  The downside of the strategy is that it satisfies for the time and can result in personal crises, damaged health and lost relationships due to compromised values.
  2. Playing to live– Employees fulfill their responsibilities, however they also set priorities and limits at work and don’t get too caught up in the ‘hype’. They consider their life outside office equally important. The negative aspect is that organizations may consider the employee not being sufficiently competitive for crucial positions. In addition, this strategy can leave employees feeling they are “wearing a mask” at work.
  3. Playing for the good guys- These employees specifically choose to work for organizations they trust and believe in. They are focused on external customers, social benefit and/or responsibility. Yet even these organizations can create unintentional pressure to compromise, which can leave employees feeling even more disillusioned.
  4. Rebelling or dropping out- The employees leave their organization to protect their integrity. Sometimes the employees lose faith in the corporate world and leave it completely. This requires the person to sometimes take significant reduction in income and standard of living, and work through questions about their impact in the world.
  5. Redefining the game – The employees retain their ethics and values under the toughest circumstances by clearly defining for themselves what they consider winning or losing, what their work is serving, what they will and won’t do, and how they keep score. Their belief is that the corporate world needs to change, and they are a critical part of helping the right thing happen. They develop an internal reinforcement system to keep themselves psychologically strong and keep limits on material requirements in order to preserve their freedom. 

While many of us assume that a few gifted people are capable of redefining the game, in fact that strength arises from investing in the six personal foundations which create an internal reinforcement system:

  1. Reconnect to your strengths: The ability to access confidence, creativity and self-awareness to guide your choices.
  2. See the larger field: Sustaining a broad perspective so you recognize choice-points, act on your true priorities, and see all your options.
  3. Define a worthy enough win: Having a sense of mission and a reason for courage to help you focus your efforts and weigh hard choices.
  4. Find your real team: Having strong relationships with your family, close allies, and other professionals to give you well-being, perspective, and reinforcement.
  5. Make positive plays: Having a broad range of constructive actions you can use under pressure – including the ability to say no. This means investing in the skills for saying no constructively, without triggering retaliation if at all possible.
  6. Keep your own score: Developing internal guideposts to evaluate your progress and determine what is “enough”.

By investing in these six personal foundations, individuals increase their courage, skills and awareness so they can weigh healthy and unhealthy compromises and take effective action when they feel pressured to compromise on fundamental values. From this vantage point of strength, employees can then ask the following questions in any difficult situation:

  1. What is causing me to believe that I have to compromise my personal values?
  2. What whould I be personally gaining by the compromise (evaluate the importance)?
  3. What would I be giving up by the compromise (include the long term and short term consequences)?
  4. Overall, do I view this as a healthy or unhealthy compromise?
  5. How can I retain my personal values while achieving organizational goals?

Reading The Compromise Trap, I realized that employees do have personal choices. They mostly are unaware of them or do not realize their full potential. Each employee has the right and duty to focus on personal happiness and well being, and this is in fact the best way to help our companies succeed.

A new beginning has to be made on this road to life. I encourage you all to have the courage to make meaningful personal choices and share your experiences. You might wish to take the free Personal Foundation Test available on . The report is useful in assessing our inner strengths and strategies which we adopt for survival at work. Please do share your stories; this will enable you to discover your options.

11 comments on “Maintaining Personal Values At Work

  1. Excellent, excellent sonia!
    This post is really so meaningfull
    I am going to share this with my employees.


    • Sarah,

      Whatever your problems are they will pass. It is as per Buddhist saying ” this too shall pass” since everything in life is impermanent.

      If you need help, please get in touch with Elizabeth Doty, the writer of the book. She might be able to guide you, her link is available on the sidebar.

      If you think I can be of any help, please feel free to write to me at

      Kind regards,


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