Balancing Empathy And Accountability As A Leader

Achieving Goals, Leadership Coaching
08/07/23 - Nicole Wood
a boss holding a coffee with a laptop open with statistics listening intently to their colleague

As a leader of an organization that has a wellbeing orientation, it can be tempting for me to over-index on empathy and prioritize employee happiness and wellbeing above all else. I truly do care about my team and fundamentally believe that what’s good for people is good for business.

But what’s good doesn’t necessarily mean what’s easy. Or comfortable. Or popular. Your team needs to be challenged. Your team needs to be held accountable. Your team needs to be stretched. Your team’s incentives need to be aligned with business performance. And some of these things, while incredibly important, don’t always feel good in the moment.

It’s easy to point to the problems with the extremes in either direction, but as with so many aspects of leadership, the right answer lies somewhere in the middle between two seemingly contradictory forces and behaviors.

You have to prioritize wellbeing and lead with empathy while also holding folks accountable and driving business results. It’s no easy task.

Here are a few tips I’ve learned over time in building an organization that cares deeply about people but also is on a high-growth trajectory:

Communicate context and intent.

Communication is always key, but it’s critical when delivering unpopular or challenging news. That might be in clearly stating what is required to hit a goal or even when you might have to change a person’s role or income in an unfavorable way. Anchor folks around the why of these decisions, how they enable business success and how they were carefully evaluated. Without context, people can quickly jump to misguided assumptions, making a difficult transition much worse.

Flex your approach to the individual’s style and needs.

Some people on your team might need to really understand how a change impacts their future while others simply just need to be clearly told what to do, and they will do it. Consider your audience and their style and preferences when communicating goals and holding team members accountable to them. Remember that people are motivated by different things so challenge yourself to really understand what drives each team member and consider those motivators in how you drive performance.

Celebrate effort, but don’t lose sight of results.

It’s the absolute worst, as an individual contributor and as a leader, when hard work doesn’t pay off in terms of results. We want to believe that effort guarantees outcomes, but that’s not always the case. As a leader, it’s important to recognize this. We should be celebrating our teams when we see dedication and hard work. And also, it’s important not to celebrate the effort so much that the message that we’re still falling short gets lost. No one wants to feel unappreciated, so call out the right behaviors whether or not they lead to the optimal outcomes. And also don’t water down your message with fluffy, celebratory language. Be clear about where the organization is missing the mark and what needs to happen going forward.

Be both principled and practical.

It’s important as a leader to have principles, guardrails that keep you on a proven path. You might have firm stances in what you approve, how you compensate and what you reprimand. And also, sometimes you need to be practical and bend your own rules to get a job done or support a specific person in an unusual scenario. Don’t be so principled that you get in your own way. And do be so wishy washy that you bend to every plea and request. Trust your gut to know when each is appropriate.

Pay attention to seasons and cycles.

No one can operate at 110% all the time. Humans crave starts and finishes, periods of intensity and periods of relief. There will be times in business when you need all hands on deck to hit a target or launch an initiative. Make sure everyone knows the importance of that. And also, though no time is ever “easy,” sense when there’s space to exhale and invite your team to enjoy it. Remind them to take vacation, encourage them to reflect on and celebrate wins, give them permission to downshift. This might be a time when you can focus a team meeting on connection or self-awareness versus business activity and outcomes. Tune into your team’s cycles of energy and output, and try to align messaging, content and direction with the current need.

Do what you can when you can.

It’s easy to feel like an investment in wellbeing and recognition needs to be formal or expensive. But sometimes the small, personal touches go a lot further than the formal reviews or company-wide programs. A $100 spot bonus or a $10 venmo for a cup of coffee goes such a long way. Sending an email to celebrate someone’s work or telling your direct report to take the day off when they are going through something difficult can make such an impact. Don’t wait for the big moments to invest in wellbeing – the smaller the better.

Remember that business performance is an enabler of wellbeing.

When a mentor of mine said this very directly to me, it rocked my world. I had been thinking about these things as contradictory: either your team is happy and relaxed and the business suffers or you’re working them to death and the business is doing well. Those are certainly two common scenarios, but they aren’t the only ones.

It is really difficult for employees to truly have wellbeing at work when the business is struggling and not meeting goals. What happens? Perks get cut. People become reactive. Stress rises. It may feel more challenging in the moment to work harder, receive tough feedback or try a new approach, but if those are the things driving positive business outcomes, then they are also drivers of wellbeing.

Balancing empathy and accountability is no easy task and it can be confusing at times to determine what is “right.” Working with a coach can help you test your assumptions, right-size problems and move forward with clarity. You don’t have to navigate leadership alone.

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