Choosing Between Compassion and Performance

Teresa, who’s the vice president of customer support at an insurance company, decided to cancel her monthly town hall meeting right before the holidays last year. She thought her staff would appreciate the extra hour as they were rushing to meet their year-end goals. It seemed like a logical decision, but it didn’t go well. One of her trusted employees told her that workers were complaining, saying that “higher-ups always put numbers before people.” Teresa wanted to help by reducing some demands on their time, but the message that staff received was, “Keep your heads down” due to the pressure to achieve results.

This example highlights the challenge of balancing managers’ desire to show compassion and achieve results. In a study of 300 business executives, 61% said they struggle to combine their workers’ need for support with their organization’s goal for high performance. Although most people think that good leadership requires both accountability and compassion, surveys show that delivering this type of leadership is more complicated than ever. Instead of choosing between compassion and performance, we need to drive performance while also providing strong support for employees. Responding compassionately not only improves performance and loyalty but also creates an atmosphere that is safe for learning, collaboration, and innovation—all of which impact the bottom line. Leaders need data, prioritization, setup, and collaboration to sustainably offer both compassion and performance.

Data: Determine What Is Important

  • Leaders might think they understand what’s crucial to their employees, but it’s not always clear. Leaders need data on what workers care about instead of assuming they already know. To get the real story, specific questions should be asked, such as, “What have you struggled with the most in the last month?” or “What job modification would have the greatest influence on your well-being?”

Prioritize Compassion

  • Compassionate discussions take time. To make time for compassion, companies must remove non-essential tasks. Identifying what isn’t necessary involves asking questions like, “How much time-consuming and unpleasant reporting goes on without adding genuine value?” Middle managers, who have firsthand knowledge, can assess priorities and should be supported in their efforts to serve employees.

Setup Opportunities to Discuss Well-Being

  • Leaders need to create a culture that encourages people to talk about the help they need. This involves showing that compassion and performance aren’t in competition. Research shows that well-being improves performance-related outcomes. Creating psychological safety for both leaders and employees is essential in these conversations.

Managers and Employees Should Collaborate

  • Co-ownership of the problem is crucial. Increasing employee engagement and well-being is the responsibility of both managers and employees. Leaders should focus on building a climate that encourages communication and fosters open conversation. Employees know their needs better than anyone else, and leaders should be supportive of those needs.

Organizations can foster an atmosphere where compassion thrives by creating sub-groups, having sessions where employees discuss failures, telling stories about the organization’s mission, recognizing acts of compassion, and having leaders share their vulnerability to build trust.

A word of caution is also emphasized: Compassionate leadership should not become a new source of stress. When compassion becomes a performance act, authenticity and effectiveness are lost. Leaders should ensure that compassion remains human-centric and not just a utilitarian approach to boost scores.

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