Managers: Compassion and Accountability Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

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Let’s be honest: It’s been a terrible year for most people, though not everyone experienced the trauma of the pandemic, the ongoing reckoning around racial inequalities, and the contentious U.S. election in the same way. Since the pandemic began, there’s been a call for managers to be understanding and lenient with employees as they navigate the stressors the global crisis has brought on. 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. The good news is, experts say that it’s possible to have both. Rather than thinking of it as a trade-off between compassion and accountability, think about how you can combine the two. Here are eight steps managers can take to meet goals while also being caring.

Since the pandemic began, there’s been a call for managers to be understanding and lenient with employees as they navigate the stressors the global crisis has brought on. 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. Should you offer flexibility around deadlines and performance expectations even if it means missing team targets? How can you be understanding about what people have been through — and continue to go through — while holding them accountable? And should you worry about being taken advantage of?

I posed these questions to several experts who study motivation and compassion at work to see what advice they have to offer managers at this time, and across the board, they said now is not a time to let up on the care and consideration you’ve shown your employees over the past year. Nor should you push people without also considering what they need emotionally. As Jane Dutton, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and coauthor of Awakening Compassion at Work, puts it, “Being compassionate doesn’t mean you have to lower your standards.” Rather than thinking of it as a trade-off between compassion and accountability, think about how you can combine the two.

Here’s some advice for how to navigate the seeming tension between being caring and thoughtful and holding people to high standards.

Reframe how you think about the last year

Let’s be honest: It’s been a terrible year for most people, though not everyone experienced the trauma of the pandemic, the ongoing reckoning around racial inequalities, and the contentious U.S. election 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. Rather than thinking, “We lowered our expectations,” focus on everything you and your team did get done, suggests Linda Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of Being the Boss. Chances are that it was a lot, accomplished in not particularly easy circumstances. And instead of seeing the way you interacted with your employees as “being lenient,” Hill says to think of it as “being flexible, which is the right thing to do.”

And reframe how you think about motivating employees

You may also need to rethink your assumptions about what motivates employees. If you see compassion and accountability as opposite sides of a coin, says Dutton, you’re thinking about it wrong. Many managers believe they need to be tough to get people to produce, but the research doesn’t support that. In fact, adding stress to an employee’s workday can result in what’s called a “threat rigidity effect,” where people who feel they’re under threat focus on what they already know how to do and fail to be creative or innovative.

You may be able to “extract labor” from people in the short term, says Dutton, but over the long term, it has the opposite effect. In other words, coming down hard on people rarely works, especially if they’re already suffering. “At a purely instrumental strategic level, you’re not going to get the results you want if you add stress to people’s lives,” says Jacob Hirsh, an associate professor at the University of Toronto. He says that part of a manager’s job is to create a psychologically safe workplace — and if you do that for your team members, it will be far easier to then ask them to do their part. According to Dutton’s research, “People’s response to compassion is often to invest more in the organization.” So being compassionate and caring is not just a nice thing to do — it’s critical to performance.

Don’t ignore the reality

Now that we’re 18 months into this crisis, and many people are trying to return to some semblance of normalcy in their lives, you might assume that you can go back to a pre-pandemic level of productivity. But don’t ignore the fact that most people are still feeling burned out. “We are all depleted,” says Dutton, and reopening offices isn’t going to make that go away. “It’s not going to be a stress-free world,” says Hirsh. “There’s always going to be something going on in people’s lives.” He also cautions that the “old style” of dealing with mental health at work — essentially keeping it hidden and pretending it doesn’t exist — just doesn’t work. We know now that people want to be able to talk openly about mental health issues in their workplaces.

What if you feel taken advantage of?

If some of your team members have been requesting accommodations over the past year, such as extensions on deadlines, reduced workload, or time off to take care of their mental health, it’s possible that you might feel taken advantage of, especially if you’ve been giving your job your all and getting your work done without such accommodations. There’s a temptation, says Hirsh, 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, of course. So don’t go down the rabbit hole wondering if particular employees are using the situation to their advantage. As Hill says, “You’re better off helping them with their burnout rather than focusing on whether that person is making inappropriate use of your leniency.”

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. Hirsh suggests you consider: “Is it their motivation? Is it stress? Is it the workflow? Is it a lack of training? Where are things actually hurting here? And then focus in on that.” Hill suggests that you consider the team as a whole. 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.

Focus on resilience

Resilience plays an important role. “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,” says Hirsh. This is especially true for anyone who bore the brunt of the trauma and grief over the past year.

Hirsh adds that rather than wondering when you can stop asking people how they’re doing, you should be thinking, “How can we help you manage your life and perform better?” While it doesn’t fall solely on you, as their manager, to help a struggling employee to build their resilience, you can play a role. As Dutton says, “It requires extra imagination and diligence to strengthen people.” But it pays dividends in terms of performance and commitment when you do.

One way to motivate your team, especially when they’re under ongoing stress, is to show them the progress they’ve made. “Help people see how they’ve grown over the past year to sustain positive momentum,” says Dutton. You might ask people to share whether they’ve honed or discovered new skills or abilities during the pandemic (making it clear that it’s OK if they didn’t). 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,” she says.

Have individual conversations — and plans

This all requires that you 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. Hill says, “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, she suggests you make clear what the job requires. You might say, “This is the work you need to get done. Is that possible?” 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, though. “If they’re not being productive and you’ve made it clear what’s required for the job, and they can’t do that, then you have a decision to make,” explains Hill. After all, you do need someone to do that work.

Take it to the group

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. As Hirsh says, “Accountability is a collective goal, and it works best if the team can find a way that we are all achieving.” So sit down as a group and problem solve together. Hill suggests you say something like, “OK, let’s assume these are the conditions we have to work under for another six months. How can we best do our work? And how can we improve our work together?”

Take care of yourself

While taking care of your employees, 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,” says Hirsh. 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,” he says. “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.

Given how tiring it is to be constantly worrying about your team while also trying to meet goals, it’s tempting to try to pull back on compassion. But it’s important to stick with it. Of course you need to be realistic about what you can and can’t do for people, but Dutton urges managers to think of compassion as “an investment in your people.” She adds, “it’s an investment that has a huge payoff.”

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