Choosing Between Compassion and Performance

Teresa, the vice president of customer support at an insurance company, canceled her monthly town hall meeting just before the holidays last year. She believed that staff would appreciate the extra hour because they were rushing to meet their year-end goals. Her decision was logical. But it backfired. One of her trusted employees informed her that workers were grumbling about how “higher-ups always put numbers before people.” By reducing specific demands on their time, Teresa believed she was being helpful. But, under pressure to generate results, the signal that staff received was, “Keep your heads down.”

This example shows the dilemma in balancing between managers’ desire to demonstrate compassion and enable results. In a study of 300 business executives, 61% said they are battling to combine their workers’ need for support with their organization’s goal for high performance. While most of us think that genuine leadership requires both accountability and compassion, surveys show that delivering this type of leadership is more complicated than ever. Deciding between compassion and performance is a false choice. We need to drive performance while maximizing support for employees. Responding compassionately to workers not only improves their performance and loyalty, but also creates an atmosphere that is safe for learning, collaboration, and innovation—which all impact the bottom line. Leaders require data, prioritizing, setup, and collaboration to sustainably offer both compassion and performance.

Data: Determine What Is Important

Many of us believe that we have a strong understanding of what is most important to the key people involved, but it’s not clear that we do. Acting on wrongly understood goals is counterproductive. It shows that managers do not comprehend what their people experience. 

Leaders must get data on what workers care about rather than assuming that they already know. We’ve heard far too many tales of top executives failing to notice the distinction between their comparably lavish daily work-from-home experiences and their employees’ less-than-ideal ones. The aim is to discover the reality. To get there, we should pose specific questions, like, “What have you struggled with the most in the last month?” or “What job modification would have the greatest influence on your well-being?”

Different data gathering methods provide distinct types of details and send out diverse messages. Townhalls and surveys are useful for gathering and tracking trends, but they don’t deliver deep insight into employee experiences. One-on-one interactions, on the other hand, are great for learning the nuances that individuals feel and showing genuine compassion. To learn those nuances, it’s vital to make time for one-on-one conversations. 

Prioritize Compassion

Having compassionate discussions takes time. So for managers to spend time showing compassion, their companies must remove non-essential tasks. This is easier said than done. There is a natural conflict in identifying where we can let go, especially short-term success. To better understand what isn’t necessary, ask questions like, “How much time-consuming and unpleasant reporting goes on without adding genuine value?” More specifically, “What are two deliverables that you get but do not read?”

Middle managers have the information to assess priorities. They have firsthand knowledge of both the job and the individuals doing it. Leaders must remind managers that this isn’t a trade-off between compassion and performance, but rather between distinct elements of both so that they can open up time to focus on what adds the most significant benefit. Senior leaders must acknowledge that their middle managers have more and better data than they do, and they must trust and support their managers’ prioritizing efforts and requests as those managers try to serve employees in need.

Setup Opportunities to Discuss Well-Being

I’ve heard employees say, “I would like my boss to understand the context in which I work,” but also, “I don’t want to have to go out to my manager to tell her this stuff – that makes me appear like I’m whining.” Those conversations illustrate the need for leaders to foster an atmosphere that encourages people to talk about the help they need. 

To create that culture, show that compassion and performance aren’t competing against each other. There is a host of research showing that well-being improves quantitative, performance-related outcomes. This will help managers recognize how investing time and energy in compassionate leadership can help them reach their goals.

Second, include psychological safety for both leaders and employees in these conversations. Employees must be honest about their need for help, and leaders must be honest about the organization’s performance demands.

There are other things that organizations can do to foster an atmosphere where compassion thrives.

  • Creating sub-groups inside a bigger company where employees with similar responsibilities may bond.
  • To make workplaces safe for learning, have frequent sessions where employees are encouraged to discuss not only their accomplishments, but also their failures.
  • To motivate staff, tell tales about the organization’s mission and successes, stressing its humanitarian achievements and dedication to doing good.
  • Recognizing acts of compassion at work in order to foster more generosity of spirit.
  • Having leaders mirror their own vulnerability in order to foster a sense of safety and trust.

Managers and Employees Should Collaborate 

Co-ownership of the problem is the final piece of the puzzle. Increasing employee engagement and well-being is the responsibility of both managers and employees. It is a joint problem that companies must own and tackle together. Employees know what they need better than anybody else. So we should minimize the load on leaders to supply the solutions. Instead, leaders should focus on building a climate that encourages communication and fosters open conversation. We must help workers understand their own needs, and be supportive of employee demands. 

Employees own their problems and abilities, while managers own the needs and resources of the business. You can keep the solution relevant by getting everyone on the same page about when you’ll reassess the approach and make changes.

Organizational messaging that promotes winning at all costs or that prioritizes self-promotion diminishes compassion at work. Compassionate leadership does not involve removing work and giving people anything they want. Also, achieving excellent performance does not imply neglecting your workers’ needs and well-being. Leaders who want sustainably high performance must put in the time and effort to guarantee that their people can achieve it.

And a word of caution: Don’t make empathetic leadership a new source of stress. As employee assistance demands have grown, some managers have found themselves increasingly judged on their capacity to help them, generally through retention and engagement scores. While responsibility on these dimensions is desirable, it carries the risk of adding extra strain to an already overburdened system and transforming activities that were once truly human-centric and compassionate into utilitarian ones. When compassion becomes a performance act, we lose both authenticity and effectiveness.

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