In 2005, I was striving to run a healing center – offering psychotherapy, chiropractic, massage, financial planning, and life coaching – in a radically decent way. On the business side, one central goal was to establish a financial relationship of trust between the core group of professional/business partners.
Regarding compensation, the plan was to divide up the money as a group, with each professional having an equal voice in the decision. And our written charter offered this guideline: Each professional’s compensation would, over time, approximate his or her financial contribution (decency to self). At the same time, we would moderate our expectations for the sake of the business and its goal of decency in all that we do (decency to others and the world).
Easy to articulate, not so easy in practice.
Why? Because, inevitably, Radical Decency brings with it wisdom-stretching moments that are both exquisitely uncomfortable and – if we are up to the challenge – times of powerful insight and growth. For me and my partners, one of these defining moments involved our chiropractor’s compensation.
Here’s what happened. In our culture, chiropractic is far more lucrative than psychotherapy, coaching, or massage. And to complicate matters, trust didn’t come easily for our chiropractor; a quality quickly triggered because he was negotiating this vitally important financial relationship with a long-time attorney – me.
As the negotiations unfolded, our model of trust quickly fell by the wayside. Even though we’d been working together for months, organizing the business, he just couldn’t get comfortable with it. So, after weeks of emotionally fraught negotiations, we wound up with an agreement in principle that guaranteed him 55% of the chiropractic income, with the possibility of further compensation more if the practice really took off.
But just as we were finalizing the deal, the realities of life intruded. The chiropractor was diagnosed with a long-term medical condition that, depending on its progression, could make it impossible for him to function as a chiropractor, in a few years if not months.
So how in the world, in this situation, do you balance decency to self (me and the other non-chiropractic partners) with decency to others (the chiropractor)?
Here’s what we came up with. When our colleague reached the point where chiropractic work was impossible, we would take a snapshot of that side of the business, hire a replacement, and continue our original chiropractor’s compensation at 60% (that is, chiropractic income, multipled by .6, multipled by .55). In addition, we would re-train him as a different type of healer, with his income from that aspect of his work to be determined by the compensation rules described above.
Was this the “right,” or the “best,” or even a “good” solution? For me, these questions have no answer. But I do know the episode grew me as a businessman and a person.
One lesson learned is that I try too hard. I can see now that we were never going to get by the chiropractor’s trust issues; a fact driven home to me when – just few months into the contract – he quit, convinced he was being cheated. In retrospect, it would have been more decent to everyone if I had called a halt to the negotiations; if I had recognized that no amount of clever problem solving and persistence was going to work.
Another equally helpful lesson is that less traditional, more decent solutions are in fact possible even to the most seemingly intractable of situations – if we persist in our efforts to be decent at all times, in every context, and without exception.