Balancing Accountability with Compassion

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Whenever I start to write about leadership or qualities of leadership, I hear the voices of many colleagues and clients who have diverse (and sometimes opposing) opinions.

Although leadership means (many) different things to different people, one thing I think most everyone can agree on is that leadership means being accountable for results. Leaders don’t take the position of “it’s not my problem”. If they see a problem, they handle it. Or they take some action toward addressing it. That type of mindset in action drives results, and provides stability and reliability – you can count on that person to ‘get the job done’. I don’t think that organizations can survive without a minimum threshold of accountability in their culture, particularly at the leadership level. Being accountable is good.

But effective leaders need more than that ‘push’ of personal accountability to be successful. They need compassion. They need to connect with people, support and encourage people. When we come to work we want to be recognized for who we are as people, as well as for our contributions. We want to be inspired and invited. And we want to be treated as more than human ‘resources’. Demonstrating compassion, which I could define here as real caring for people and their concerns, helps achieves this. For that reason I believe that compassion can be a powerful element of a workplace culture. Compassion is a force for good.

Compassion has an enormous impact on several levels:

  • On relationships– Is there a more important element in healthy relationships than caring? When leaders practice compassion there is an immediate benefit on the ‘we’ dimension. It opens the door to sharing feelings (both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’), stories, and ideas. Caring elicits caring in return. Leaders who model caring foster that behavior in the cultures of their organizations, generating higher levels of trust and openness. Have you ever been in a meeting when the energy shifted from the cerebral ‘task to address’ to the more intimate ‘vulnerability in the air’, and felt (really felt, in your body and in your heart) more connected to those people? Leaders who can ‘go there’ with their teams have a gift that can galvanize a team, turning co-workers into partners.
  •  On engagement and satisfaction, the ‘I’ level– I’ve heard more than a few clients share with me, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care”. Compassionate leaders elicit the elusive ‘discretionary effort’ that our workplaces need. They invite people to show up as whole people, and not leave their emotions and concerns at the door. I’ve worked for many different types on the caring continuum, and I can readily list who are the managers/clients for whom I’d willingly give much more. I’d probably not be so open about those whose lack of compassion had a clamshell impact on me- in retrospect I can see how I chose to hold back my mental and emotional energy.
  • On the impersonal, task level– Although compassion on its own will not, in my view, improve our business performance, it forms a powerful combination when teamed with other attributes like setting and communicating a vision, being detail-oriented, and of course business acumen. Because of its impact on personal engagement and culture, compassion yields tangible results- because results depend upon people working together, demonstrating resilience when times get tough, and showing up at work as their whole selves. And to the extent that compassion facilitates openness, it promotes both innovation and healthy, productive conflict. This is important to remember, because compassion is sometimes minimized and labeled as a ‘softer’ component of leadership.

In addition to all of these benefits, I believe that practicing compassion actually increases levels of accountability. Compassion provides safety and ‘cover’ to people when they feel challenged. If you’ve demonstrated that you care for me and my concerns, then I will feel safer and more willing to step in to tackle a challenge or a need to be addressed. I’d be more willing to take risks because I feel that you’ve ‘got my back’.

I believe there is an emerging paradigm of leadership that combines the strength and focus of personal accountability and the softness of compassion. We can apply our problem-solving skills and our time-tested experience, intensely focusing our energy on what needs attention and completion. At the same time, we can ‘hold’ others around us (as well as ourselves) with a nurturing receptivity, contributing to a culture of trust and openness as well as higher levels of engagement including, of course, our own engagement and commitment.

The opportunities are there. What do you think?

I welcome your thoughts and feelings.

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