Positive compromise

I want to continue this short series of posts based around the theme of compromise by looking at a more modern developments.

In 2004 Charles Chen introduced the concept of positive compromise (Positive compromise: a new perspective for career psychology. Australian Journal of Career Development, 13(2) 2004). Compromise within career choice is generally considered a negative concept. Chen proposes that compromise will always be part of career choice in a complex and rapidly-changing world. Therefore, it makes sense to understand how to engage with compromise in constructive way.

You could envisage compromise as negotiating with yourself over competing values and needs. In any negotiation, you need to gain something of value for each thing you give away. Thus, compromise is not about making sacrifices — it is about making trades.

In addition, for the results to be sustainable, each party in a negotiation must feel that at least some of their needs have been addressed. If not, resentments are likely to surface later. Similarly, if you compromise too much, the part of you that loses out may come back later to haunt you.

Instead of seeing compromise as giving up an ideal career in favour of a second-rate one, you can see it as finding an optimised solution to a problem.

Chen suggests four activities to promote in careers interventions:

  • Open positioning – a more open-minded, flexible, responsive approach.
  • Vision development – a greater understanding and awareness of the different compromise options and implications
  • Risk management – increasing awareness of and preparedness for risk taking
  • Action implementation – knowing how to take the compromise forward and maximise the benefits.
  • To what extent are you helping clients to prepare for and make constructive compromises in their careers?
  • How much do you know about the principles of good negotiation and can you apply them to careers practice?
  • Are you compromising the quality of your guidance by not directly addressing the issue of compromise?

, , , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by John King on 26 October 2009 - 23:12

    I’m not sure that promoting compromise is particularly constructive in early career stages. Perhaps more so in later stages, but for undergraduates and recent graduates, trying something unrealistic and failing is far more constructive than reducing aspirations prior to even beginning to attempt something (and when you reduce your aspirations and still fail, you can be in real psychological trouble – far more than if you had not compromised in the first place).

    Let’s not be scared of failure; an earlier post of yours suggested that learning to face failure with resilience was important in combating learned helplessness.

    More of a problem for young clients is in understanding what a particular career choice really comprises; a perceived compromise may in reality be an upwards adjustment and not a compromise at all.

    What is the reality for many of our clients?

    1. Scarce data on which they are expected to make perceived critical decisions
    2. Not enough variety of experience to judge what they are really good at or what they enjoy
    3. Little experience beyond the academic
    4. Workplace experiences in junior and unfulfilling jobs

    How on earth can you compromise with this dearth of information? What are you going to compromise? Your values? Your attitudes? Your hopes?

    ‘Compromise within career choice is generally considered a negative concept’. Perhaps, but you will still overhear it being proposed – consciously or unconsciously – in nearly every interaction in every CAS in the country. It is negative, it is damaging, and it has little place in early stage graduate careers advice. It is pernicious, and we should fight it at every opportunity.

    • #2 by David Winter on 26 October 2009 - 23:42

      Careers advisers always have to tread the line between inspiring optimism and encouraging realism.

      It is irresponsible to persuade clients to lower their sights before they have had a chance to really test themselves. Similarly, it is irresponsible to spur them on to take risks without preparing them to deal with the consequences of failure, especially in the current economic climate.

      Positive compromise isn’t about encouraging people to settle for less unncessesarily. It is about equipping them to compromise well if the need arises. Part of that equipping should involve helping them to decide when not to compromise.

      • #3 by John King on 30 October 2009 - 15:47

        Treading the line between inspiring optimism and encouraging realism can be precisely the wrong thing to do; it depends of course on where you draw the line.

        Studies have shown that patients with symptoms of clinical depression have a more realistic, accurate view of their future than normal control groups, who tend to be overoptimistic about their future. Normal, healthy people tend not to achieve what they set out to, but what they achieve is enough to make them happy.

        Thus it is healthy to be inaccurately optimistic about your future prospects. It can be unhealthy, dangerous and career limiting to be realistic.

        I’d also suggest (without evidence) that careers advisers tend more to realism than optimism, and so the lines they draw already tend towards what they consider realistic, and thus may inadvertantly drag clients’ compromises away from a healthy, optimistic bias.

      • #4 by David Winter on 30 October 2009 - 16:27

        I’d like to be able to do both. I’d like to maintain optimism because it does encourage action and avoids learned helplessness. At the same time, I would like to prepare people for the possibility of things not turning out the way they anticipate and to be ready to handle that situation too without just having to ‘settle’ for something.

        Are you telling me I’m being unrealistic or too optimistic about what is achievable?

        Perhaps it hinges on what ‘optimism’ means. If it means ‘believing that things will turn out exactly the way you want them to’ then I think that can be dangerous. However, if it means ‘believing that whatever happens – good or bad – you will get something useful and positive out of it’ – that to me sounds more healthy. From my understanding, the concept of positive compromise is all about that second definition.

  2. #5 by Aminder K Nijjar on 30 October 2009 - 17:21

    Whilst I like Chen’s positive approach, I think the word ‘compromise’ has too many negative connotations for it to be regarded positively. Perhaps use of another word (consolidation/integration…) would help move us (and clients) away from the restrictive nature the word compromise gives rise to.
    Clients (and people in general) can be very sensitive, whether or not they show it, if someone in a professional capacity, such as a careers advisers says, imply or think (and therefore react, eg through body language) that they think the client is being unrealistic. This (along with other factors) links to the negative perceptions of careers advisers/careers services.
    I tend to err on the side of working towards inspiring and encouraging optimism. This brings it own challenges of course, and yes the client may well need to be aware of quite crucial factors which may affect their choices, options etc. However, and this reflects my own philosophy on life, history and the current world has people who have achieved ‘the impossible’.
    Balancing differing and at times opposing elements is challenging and fun!

    • #6 by David Winter on 30 October 2009 - 23:15

      It’s interesting the response that the word ‘compromise’ provokes! I think it’s time to apply a bit of personal construct psychology…

      PCP says that you can’t really understand what something really means to someone unless you can understand what the opposite part of the construct pair is.
      If the opposite of ‘compromising’ is: ‘maintaining integrity’, ‘succeeding’, ‘fulfilling my promise’, ‘being optimistic’, etc., then compromise is on the bad side of the construct. However, if the opposite of ‘compromising’ is: ‘being rigid’, ‘conflicting’, ‘failing to agree’, ‘losing out’, etc., then compromise is on the good side.

      I completely agree that we need to be sensitive to the danger of treading on people’s aspirations and I also tend to work towards insipring and encouraging optimism. But I think that many clients are already thinking about compromise themselves. And if they are, I want to be sure that they have a positive construction of what compromise can be.

  3. #7 by John King on 2 November 2009 - 11:29

    Very true – perhaps I need to compromise on my definition of compromise! However as Aminder points out, perhaps the use of the word ‘compromise’ compromises the theory…

    Note that the final use of the word there equates to ‘damaging’ the theory. Compromise is generally taken as a negative thing and we cannot redefine it easily!

    • #8 by David Winter on 2 November 2009 - 20:45

      You don’t need to compromise on your definition of compromise, just recognise that it may not be the only one. It’s always potentially dangerous to assume that the client’s reactions to particular words or phrases will be similar to our own. Always best to find out first.

      For most of the potential entrepreneurs you deal with I’m sure that optimism is a more useful construct than realism and that compromise may be a damaging word. But is that always true?

  4. #9 by Hilary on 3 November 2009 - 15:17


    “for undergraduates and recent graduates, trying something unrealistic and failing is far more constructive than reducing aspirations”

    I certainly don’t think this is true of all students, and I think that great care should be taken in approaching guidance with this kind of blanket statement in mind. I’ve been in guidance interviews with clients when urging them to “try something unrealistic and fail” seemed to me to be a much more potentially damaging approach than gently helping them to reassess their goals and plan to commit to a couple of achievable action steps.

    It also seems to me that there’s a lot of mileage in exploring the motivation behind someone’s aspirations. You assume that all aspirations are positive and healthy simply because they ARE aspirations, and that people who have aspirations are by definition resilient and resourceful. Read “The Drama of the Gifted Child” – Alice Miller has much to say on the suject of people who often pursue and achieve extremely lofty ambitions and are still “in real psychological trouble”.

    Guidance works best when we remember that one size does NOT fit all. The struggle is often to take oneself out of the picture and really focus on the client’s needs – not our own! – whatever they happen to be.

  1. Dialectical bootstrapping « Careers – in Theory
  2. The benefits of pessimism « Careers – in Theory

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: