Career Trends: Compassion and accountability aren’t mutually exclusive

6 min read

Edition: September 8th, 2021
Curated by the Knowledge Team of ICS Career GPS

Compassion is an investment in your people that has a huge payoff. (Image Source:
  • Excerpts from article by Amy Gallo, published in Harvard Business Review

Since the pandemic began, there’s been a call for managers to be understanding and lenient with employees as they navigate the stressors of the global crisis. Now that restrictions are lifting in many parts of the world, some managers are wondering how to continue to balance compassion for the people on their team and accountability for getting work done.

Several experts who study motivation and compassion at work say now is not the time to let up on the care and consideration you’ve shown your employees over the past year. Don’t push people without considering what they need emotionally.

Rather than thinking of it as a trade-off between compassion and accountability, think about how you can combine the two.

“Being compassionate doesn’t mean you have to lower your standards.”

Jane Dutton, professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. He is the co-author of ‘Awakening Compassion at Work’.

Here’s some advice on how to navigate the seeming tension between being caring and holding people to high standards:

1. Reframe how you view the last year

  • It’s been a terrible year for most people, though not everyone experienced the trauma of the pandemic in the same way.
  • It can be easy to frame the past year as a wash — a time when none of us were at our most productive. But that wouldn’t be entirely fair.
  • Chances are that it was a lot, accomplished in not particularly easy circumstances.
  • Managers need to understand that being flexible is not the same as being lenient.

Rather than thinking, “We lowered our expectations,” focus on everything you and your team did get done.

Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and author of ‘Being the Boss’

2. Understand that compassion and care are critical to performance

  • Managers may need to rethink their assumptions about what motivates their teams. Many believe they need to be tough to get people to produce, but research doesn’t support that.
  • Adding stress to an employee’s workday can result in what’s called a ‘threat rigidity effect’. This means that people who feel they’re under threat focus on what they already know and fail to be creative.
  • People’s response to compassion is often to invest more in the organisation.
  • At a purely instrumental strategic level, you’re not going to get the results you want if you add stress to people’s lives.

3. Don’t ignore the reality people are still depleted

  • Now that we’re over 18 months into this crisis, some may feel they must get back to the pre-pandemic level of productivity.
  • But don’t ignore that most people are still feeling burned out.
  • People are depleted, and reopening offices isn’t going to make that go away. It’s not going to be a stress-free world.
  • There’s always going to be something going on in their lives. We now know that people want to be able to talk openly about mental health issues at the workplace.
  • The old style of dealing with mental health at work — essentially keeping it hidden and pretending it doesn’t exist just doesn’t work.

4. Deal with underperformance directly

  • If some of your team members have been requesting accommodations over the past year, it’s possible that you might feel taken advantage of.
  • There’s a temptation for managers to think, “If I can endure this, why can’t you?”
  • But that line of thinking and any attempt to compare suffering and resilience isn’t helpful. Everyone’s situation is unique.
  • You’re better off helping them with their burnout.
  • Instead, deal with underperformance directly. If someone isn’t able to do their job according to expectations, understand why and talk through, together, how you can address the root causes.
  • If the entire team is struggling to be productive, then you’ve got to address these issues at the group level, not just the individual one.

5. Focus on building resilience in team members

  • The limiting factor for many employees is going to be how they handle stress and everything going on in their lives.
  • Some people handle it fine. It’s part of their disposition to be able to manage the stress, others will need more support.
  • This is especially true for anyone who bore the brunt of the trauma and grief over the past year.
  • It requires extra imagination and diligence to strengthen people. But it pays dividends in terms of performance and commitment.
  • One way to motivate your team is to show them the progress they’ve made. Help people see how they’ve grown over the past year to sustain positive momentum.
  • You also want to connect them to the purpose behind their work.
  • Bathe people with the positive impact of their work. It’s like a booster shot — physiologically and psychologically.

6. Have individual conversations — and plans

  • Talk with your team members one on one so you understand their unique circumstances.
  • Don’t assume you know what those are, even if you’ve been in close contact. Things shift.
  • Make it safe for them to tell you about what’s happening in their lives and how that’s impacting their work so you can figure out the best way to move forward.
  • At the same time, make it clear what the job requires and then listen to what they think is feasible.
  • Taking into account the circumstances, you can then decide together what makes sense going forward.
  • Don’t feel like you need to tolerate sustained underperformance.

7. Encourage group accountability

  • One of the best ways to encourage accountability is to do it at the group level.
  • Rather than pushing individuals, find ways to have team members keep each other accountable.
  • Accountability is a collective goal. Get together as a group and solve the problem together.

8. Take care of yourself

  • While taking care of your team, don’t lose sight of yourself. 
  • You’re likely feeling the same stress as your team members and the pressure to produce results.
  • Managers are caught in the middle, as they often are. It’s a tall order to be meeting targets set by upper management and caring for the well-being of employees at the same time.
  • There’s additional pressure of trying to navigate through uncertainty and heightened conflict.
  • So be sure to take the time to take care of yourself. That includes getting a good night’s sleep, eating well, exercising, and making sure you have the support you need.

You need to be realistic about what you can and can’t do for people, but think of compassion as an investment in your people.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article mentioned above are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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