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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Managers, Compassion and Accountability Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

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By Amy Gallo

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 teams 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 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 might have, and they all agreed that now is not a time to let up on the care and consideration you’ve shown your employees over the past year.

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: 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 got done, suggests Linda Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School. Chances are that it was a lot, accomplished under not particularly easy circumstances.
  • Reframe how you think about motivating employees: You may also need to rethink your assumptions about what motivates employees. Jane Dutton, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, says that if you see compassion and accountability as opposite sides of a coin, you’re thinking about it wrong. Many managers believe they need to be tough to get people to produce results, but the research doesn’t support that. In fact, adding stress to an employee’s workday can negatively affect a person’s creative output. Jacob Hirsh, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, notes 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 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 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. Hirsh 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.
  • Focus on resilience: “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. While it doesn’t fall solely on you, as their manager, to help a struggling employee build resilience, you can play a role. One way to motivate your team members is to show them the progress they’ve made. “Help people see how they’ve grown over the past year,” says Dutton. You might ask people to share whether they’ve honed or discovered new skills during the pandemic). 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:  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. At the same time, Hill 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.
  • Take it to the group: One of the best ways to encourage accountability is to do it at the group level. 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 together and try to find solutions as a group. 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?”
  • 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. 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—one “that has a huge payoff.”

Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review.

Read full article on BusinessMirror

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