A Walk Through the Swamp of Compromise

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Compromise in and of itself is not bad, but let’s be clear: while it may be a practical positive attribute in specific cases, compromise does not equate to leadership. Compromise, even with the best of intentions, is a morass filled with pitfalls and hazards that can only be navigated with clear aims in mind and a careful watch for the siren call of alluring ideas. Throughout my many years as a principal, I often looked back and wondered, “Why did I ever agree to that?” This building walk is designed to give you tools to walk back through past decisions to see where you, or others, stumbled so you can avoid the same hole next time.

  • Too Soon. One of the easiest holes to fall into is the belief that “we’ve got to agree on a compromise today” because there is an imagined necessity just around the corner. This necessity might be an arbitrary date, a future fear, or the community standard of getting something done. There is often a tendency to do something right away, believing a bad decision is better than no decision or delay. This rush to action invariably results in forgotten priorities and missing components that lead to bitter, long-term actions. Consider past actions to look for when you compromised too soon.

 

  • Compromised Principle. You can compromise actions but you must never compromise principles. If your core principle is “kids first,” you should never sell that for a quick, expedient fix to a transitory problem. Sometimes there is pressure to do exactly that. In the short term, there may be a “lot of heat in the kitchen.” In the long run, standing firm on principle will ultimately win out. If you’ve compromised a core principle, recognize that now and vow to never let it happen again.

 

  • Too Pricey. Compromise, almost by definition, involves give and take on both sides. Some describe compromise as achieving a “win-win” situation, but it can also be described as a “lose-lose.” One side gives up something to achieve a desired result and the other side does the same. As you look back over past compromises, you may find you gave up too much. The compromise wasn’t worth what you achieved. Conversely, you may have asked too much and a compromise failed. Either way, always consider the “cost” vs. the “gain.”

 

  • Watered Down. Most compromises begin as lofty goals to achieve great things for our schools and students. By the time we get to the final agreement documents, the goals have become so wishy-washy they are irrelevant, the evaluation is meaningless, and the whole process has become a waste of time and effort. Old hands say, “I told you so,” your leadership falters, and nothing significant changes. This process of watering down is often a clear tactic of the folks opposing new initiatives. You may only recognize this by reviewing past failures.

 

  • Confusion Abounds. The cousin to “watering down” is causing bewilderment in a plan’s implementation. We see this in legislative actions every day. The purpose and effect is to confuse the clarity of the plan to make implementation impossible. A revision of even a small word can change the whole meaning of what is to be done. Consider, for instance, the change from “shall” to “may.” “Shall” requires action and enforcement. “May,” on the other hand, only implies a good idea. Yet committees working on plan documents like to substitute these words, using the argument that they don’t want to seem heavy-handed. As you look over a compromise plan or proposal, check carefully to ensure the intent is clearly started with the correct amount of “wiggle room.” Putting in ambivalent words is no compromise at all as, in the end, there is no agreement.

 

  • Ambivalent Implementation. Another cousin to “watering down” and “confusion abounds” is ambivalent implementation. This often appears under the guise of “different people will do this in different ways or at different speeds.” Per se, there is nothing wrong with allowing freedom to match conditions as curricula, children, setting, and culture are always a complex mixture, but at the same time, you must be sure this flexibility does not become synonymous with doing nothing. Often, unsuccessful compromises are accompanied by ineffective evaluation tools, weak guidelines, or absent timelines.

 

 

This article originally appeared in an issue of our monthly publication NorthStar for Principals.

 

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