Compensatory behavior is, well, everything

Compensatory behavior

Ever heard of compensatory behavior? It’s not a super hard concept. Basically, there’s a self we want to believe (a version of ourselves) and a self we actually put out. This applies to relationships, to work, to really pretty much anything. Social media changed the damn game on all of this too. Facebook is the big fish in that world, of course — and Facebook is largely curated bullshit a lot of the time. You see a pic of a married couple, two kids and a dog? They look super happy! Awesome family! Great times! 12 seconds before that photo, the wife might have been threatening divorce. You have absolutely no idea. This confuses and depresses a lot of people, because we’re all walking around thinking our lives aren’t as cool as Joe Blow over there. In short: social media is probably destroying us. So that’s fun.

That was a little side rant, but let’s get back to compensatory behavior. So if you have a self-discrepancy — like, you’re a total asshole but you want people to think you’re not — how do you compensate, or rationalize? That’s compensatory behavior.

Consider this example I just used. This happens all the time at work. Two people butt heads over something, and there needs to be a resolution. In the process of that resolution being reached/achieved, both sides probably need to go through some form of compensatory behavior. It’s the same in relationships, whether friendships, sexual, or otherwise. Everyone is always having to compensate/rationalize for some degree of self-discrepancy. I’d argue that this whole idea of compensatory behavior is probably as tied to the human condition as anything. There are even research papers on how it drives consumer spending.

What strategies do people use within compensatory behavior?

Per research from Stanford, you’ve got five approaches:

  • Direct resolution: Think this one is fairly obvious.
  • Symbolic self-completion: Let’s say you’re terrible at your job, so you go buy a $5,000 suit and wear it daily to distract people from your performance.
  • Disassociation: Avoidance, essentially.
  • Escapism: Distraction. When people talk about “retail therapy,” that’s what this is.
  • Fluid compensation: Basically doing something else that shows your strengths. So if you play golf and suck at it, maybe you’ll spend the afternoon doing something you know you’re good at.

Now let’s move this over to a work context.

Compensatory behavior and work

Out of the five above, let’s rank by frequency of occurrence:

Direct resolution: Almost never. Some managers are good at this, but most hide behind technology and process, i.e. once-a-year performance reviews, preferring to never actually speak to those they manage. Don’t believe me? Read this. If we had less “software portals” and more “conversations between human beings,” we might be better off.

Symbolic self-completion: All the time. Work is largely “fake it till you make it” because the goal often isn’t quality, productive work — it’s not being seen as incompetent. If a vanity metric or a nice suit can get you there, so be it.

Disassociation: Of course. Disassociation is basically how email works.

Escapism: All the time. Most people are heads-in-the-sand on big issues. “Strategy” and “planning” over time have become buzzwords.


Fluid compensation: Literally every second. Ever tried to work with an old-school person on digital/social? They blow you off, ignore you, crap on you, and then go back to doing what they’re comfortable with. This is the same reason we are so bad about metrics and analytics.

See the problem here?

At work, the “good” way to deal with compensatory behavior — direct resolution — almost never happens, and the four “bad” ones happen literally in the snap of two fingers. This is kind of the crux of why work isn’t working for people right now.

Could we fix this with better managerial training?

Could we? Of course not. This is basic human psychology. If a manager wants to pound their chest about their relevance and ignore the fact their job could have been automated 11 months ago, well, they’re going to pound their chest about relevance. That’s how people roll. No amount of HR webinars will fix that. People be people — and some of those people be awful friggin’ managers.

So what do we do about compensatory behavior?

Understand that it exists. We’re all trying to compensate or rationalize something. We also spend a hell of a lot of time confirming biases. Can’t strip psychology from work, know what I mean? You can try, sure — process for the sake of process! — but as work is a giant exercise in proving self-worth, well, good luck stripping the human element away from it. It’s folly to even try. Just realize these ideas exist and they influence a lot of how we move through our days and interact with other “professionals.”

What else might you add on compensatory behavior, as relates to work or otherwise?

Ted Bauer

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