There is a plethora of articles written about effective leadership. But, our intensely competitive business environment has made leadership more complicated when negotiating the line between providing support to employees and holding them accountable. It begs the question of how can you be an authentic, compassionate leader and still hold an employee accountable to job performance standards?
For instance, you have an employee who was recently divorced and is experiencing grief and is possibly in crisis. But, he or she is negatively impacting work by coming in late several times per week. How do you express support without sacrificing job standards? Your compassion may even slow your response to the employee job performance problem. In addition, if you have experienced a divorce yourself, you may be overly empathetic or, conversely, harsh.
The first step is to be honest with yourself about how your employee’s situation may be affecting you. If you are grieving your own recent divorce, you may be providing too much leeway to your employee. Or, you may not want to face into the situation at all. All of us as leaders have our own “trigger” issues that are based our own past experiences, whether that be a divorce, alcoholism, or death of a family member. Knowing your sensitivity areas helps you mitigate your own experience.
Second, focus on the fact that enabling your employee doesn’t provide any pressure for your employee to improve their personal situation. Holding a grieving employee accountable may be exactly the push he or she needs to join a divorce support group. It does not help the employee to be overwhelmed with emotions and not focus on her job. Even in very dramatic situations, such as when an employee has lost a family member, maintaining job performance standards may be the incentive he or she needs to get into a support group. If you are lucky enough to have a human resources expert, of course, consult with him or her before your meeting with the employee.
Third, an employee problem that is not attended to impacts the whole team. Whereas, setting a culture of accountability increases the pride of the whole group. People rise to the performance standards that are clearly delineated.
Fourth, have compassion for yourself. If you have a large work group you are responsible for, you more than likely have several people with serious personal issues. To talk to your employee about work requirements and standards while he or she is getting treated for cancer is not easy for anyone. But, if you enter into the conversation with compassion for yourself and others you will set the right tone for a successful outcome. An important question is – how do you center yourself before a stressful meeting?
Fifth, be prepared for a negative reaction. It is more the norm than not, for an employee when give specific negative observations to be defensive and angry. The emotion from the work feedback gets mixed in with all of the background troubles he or she may be having possibly exaggerating the response to you. It is essential for you to refer to your notes and stick to your facts with a compassionate tone. Be firm as you repeat yourself and make a plan for improvement. It is beneficial to follow up with your employee in writing about the specific expectations you have for job improvement.
Sixth, practice making referrals to your internal or external employee assistance program or a community referral service. Saying something simple such as, “Other employees have found the employee assistance counselor to be very helpful to confidentially discuss your family problem. It is okay to seek help.”
In summary, I want to reiterate that it is possible to be a leader that is supportive and compassionate, but also holds people accountable. Following the six steps above gives you a framework for doing both.