The Changemaker's Guide to Selling Out

by Lily Zheng

October 18, 2019

Compromise is an essential part of life for everyone. Yet, people with strong values and identities can often find themselves in situations where the stakes feel higher than in a simple compromise, where the choice we make calls into question who we are and everything we’ve worked for. These situations, in which we can feel forced to compromise aspects of ourselves to get what we want, can make us feel like we’re selling out. For those of us committed to our work, selling out can feel like failure. This is because many of us tie who we are—the identities we hold and the things we believe—to what we do. When we’re forced to compromise, it hurts the most precisely because we feel such strong connections to our identity groups and values. Selling out can feel like betrayal.

While we strive not to, changemakers and leaders must make these painful decisions often. To sustain a critical initiative, we allow ourselves to receive funding from any source, even questionable ones. To create change, we work with a leader we know will take the credit to boost her reputation. To stay in the good graces of a decision-maker that we need to approve a policy, we stay quiet when he says harmful or problematic things. What sets the most effective changemakers apart from the rest is the ability to sell out when needed in the service of a greater good, maintain their integrity throughout the process, and walk the tightrope between self-preservation and greed, authenticity and betrayal. Finding this balance is challenging. Too far one way, and we become paralyzed by inaction—ineffective and unforgiving toward ourselves and others. Too far the other way, and we lose what makes us who we are, and inadvertently become part of the same problems we’re working to address.

But a middle ground is possible. The changemakers who can sell out with grace and maintain their integrity have three key skills in common—compassion, accountability, and nuance.

Cultivate Compassion Toward Yourself

Those of us who build our identities based on our work and beliefs—as a dedicated environmentalist, a radically inclusive manager, a loving mother, a devout Muslim—often place ourselves in harm’s way to follow our beliefs. In many ways, sacrificing our personal wellbeing for the sake of these values and identities is seen as a medal of honor, a sign that we’re doing it right. But when (and it is when not if) we inevitably fail to fully live up to our values or sacrifice ourselves for our community, we can become overwhelmed with guilt and shame. Too often, we suffer in silence as we grapple with our decisions, thinking that we are the only ones without the fortitude or commitment to make the sacrifice. We may feel tempted to blame our suffering on personal failures, rather than to identify that it’s precisely the complexity and injustice of the world that forces impossible choices to sell out upon all of us.

Any way forward beyond self-blame requires compassion, recognizing that our hardship is human, universal, and real. Compassion is a matter of balance between pushing down negative feelings and overly fixating on them, giving ourselves time to feel what we need to heal, make the choices that are right for us, and move forward.

Engineer Accountability Into Your Process

As important as self-compassion is, it’s also critical to realize that not every sell out decision impacts ourselves and the people around us equally. For every decision we make, striving to become as mindful of that impact as possible—and acting appropriately based on that impact—is how changemakers sell out without losing their way. Does this decision benefit my communities, or only myself? Who pays the costs of these benefits now and further down the line?

Moreover, if you benefit from an unfair practice and stay silent to keep the status quo, the onus falls on you to understand how the status quo affects everyone else, especially when making decisions on behalf of a team or group, or as a leader or manager.

Sometimes, accountability leads us to the conclusion that the consequences of our actions are tolerable compared to the benefits, and that it’s up to us to accept the new changes with kindness and self-compassion. Other times, accountability leads to the realization that our impact is more negative than we can bear, and that we must either change our actions or work to address the harm we cause through them. It’s important to know that changemakers who keep themselves accountable do so largely through the help of a trusted community. And symbiotically, keeping yourself accountable and seeking checks and balances from your community increases trust and improves relationships. By seeking and being open to feedback, we can weave accountability into everything we do — before, during, and after we sell out.

Unpack the Nuance of Compromise

The final skill that effective changemakers who can sell out with integrity have is the ability to unpack the nuance behind their unique situation. Nuance requires discarding black and white thinking of “good vs. bad” and “us vs. them.” It requires understanding that there is no single true way to be a member of an identity group or embody a set of values and that the chase toward perfection or purity is futile. When we sell out, compassion is required to get through our initial feelings and ground ourselves. Accountability helps us articulate our boundaries, gain clarity about what we’ve done or want to do, and decide our future actions. It’s nuance that allows us to navigate our own paths and to negotiate and develop our relationships with the identities, beliefs, and values we hold dear.

We may compromise for the greater good in some situations and refuse to budge in others. There may be more options than the two or three we can initially think of. Some members of our communities may disapprove of our actions while others support them. These considerations apply to all choices, but especially to the thorny ones about politics, justice, equality, family, and work. In these tough contexts, contexts in which changemakers spend quite a bit of time, nuance is essential. Without it, we would quickly become trapped by our own values, collectively trying to maintain a façade of perfection while struggling with our own imperfect flaws.

The biggest challenge all of us face as activists, advocates, changemakers, and people working toward a better world is the reality that making change is neither easy nor simple. We may be forced to do work we can’t stomach to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. We make compromise our beliefs in the moment to achieve something larger in the future. We may say, do, and be things that stray from our ideal selves for any number of reasons. None of this diminishes our commitment to doing good, but it all requires that we take seriously the pressure we all face to sell out. This guide is a start.


Lily Zheng is a sought-after speaker, executive coach, and organizational consultant who specializes in creating healthy, inclusive, and innovative workplaces. A coauthor of The Ethical Sellout, she has written for dozens of media outlets, including the New York Times, Quartz at Work, Entrepreneur, and Psychology Today.

Topics: Leadership, Talent Development, Social Justice, Leadership and Management

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