Practice accountability with compassion

13 March, 2023

Hold your team accountable while being compassionate to elevate performance, creativity, and loyalty.

I was recently speaking to a leader who was feeling frustrated with the performance stagnating in his business. After great short-term results, consistent execution seemed to have hit a wall. Despite defining bold targets, giving autonomy, and making team members accountable for results, something seemed to be amiss.

This is not unusual. Many leaders are finding that just holding teams’ feet to the fire is not enough While accountability, empowerment and clarity of goals are necessary steps, leaders need to step up their understanding of team members, connect more deeply and take concrete actions to support them.

And that is why accountability with compassion is becoming increasingly important.

“How can I produce the outcomes we need while still being compassionate towards my team?” Most self-aware leaders struggle with this question at some point. Unfortunately, the answer they usually arrive at is “I can’t.”

In the highly competitive (and often precarious) workplace, it can feel like there’s no space for compassion. Too often, the default motivator leaders use to drive performance is “fear”. Fear of being penalized, fear of being passed over for promotion, or even fear of losing one’s job.

Today, my message focuses on upturning this perception. Accountability and compassion are not mutually exclusive – in fact, compassion can be a powerful enabler of excellence and loyalty at the workplace. What are the rewards offered by this style of leadership? And what are some practical ways in which you, as a leader, can practice accountability with compassion?

Doug Conant, the CEO who turned around the fortunes of the Campbell Soup Company, summed up the challenge as being “tender-hearted with people, tough-minded with standards”. Establishing this balance is crucial.

Trying to hold team members accountable without compassion is a sure-fire way to alienate them. You may get compliance, but you won’t get buy-in or loyalty. The risk of employee burnout and attrition also increases.

On the other hand, compassion without accountability isn’t ideal either. Such a leader may be well-liked but is unlikely to produce strong results. This is a classic case of having too much of a good thing!

The confusion around compassion

One of the reasons so many leaders reject (or overdo) compassion is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. Compassion isn’t about being “nice” or avoiding confrontation. It doesn’t mean tiptoeing around people or letting them walk over you. Rather, compassionate leadership springs from empathy. While empathy helps you experience what others are feeling and can connect you deeply with them, think of compassion as empathy in action – your willingness and explicit intention to act and support your team. As Paul Polman, the former CEO of Unilever put it well, “You need to have empathy at a human level but run a business with compassion”.

Another common myth is that compassion must be inborn. While it’s true that some people are innately more understanding and caring, compassion is just like any other skill – it can be awakened, developed, and honed. Finally, it may be called a “soft” skill, but compassion demands strength of character. To practice it, you need the courage to have tough conversations and the self-confidence to put your ego aside.

Finding the right balance

Leaders who master the art of combining accountability with compassion inspire true respect. Their team members know that they genuinely care for their wellbeing – but not at the cost of commitment, follow-through, and results. In such a scenario, employees are also more receptive to feedback, as explained by Rebekah Kondrat in her LinkedIn piece:

If an employee feels as though the leader has already said in so many words, “I’m for you,” even the toughest conversations can be received through this filter: “My boss is for me and wants me to succeed.”

Here are seven recommendations for leaders to hold their teams accountable with compassion:

1. Rethink motivation.

Many managers assume they must instil fear in their teams to drive performance – but research shows this can be counterproductive. As an article in the Harvard Business Review points out:

Adding stress to an employee’s workday can result in what’s called a “threat rigidity effect,” where people who feel they’re under threat focus on what they already know how to do and fail to be creative or innovative.

Fear-based leadership might look like it’s working in the short term – but it rarely succeeds in the long run, especially if you go through a period of collective suffering like a pandemic or recession. On the other hand, fostering psychological safety in the workplace enables employees to be innovative, seize opportunities and deliver their best work. It also inspires them to invest more deeply in their jobs and garners their loyalty to the organisation.

2. Set crystal-clear expectations.

Practice pro-active accountability by creating clear, shared expectations. Leaders who fail to invest in this initial step will invariably find that their team members fall short – and that’s a leadership failure. So, make the time to sit down with every team member to clarify the “what, why and when” you expect from them. Be mindful of your vocabulary – use specific words and detailed descriptions rather than ambiguous phrases that are open to interpretation.

3. Build a tailored plan to tackle underperformance.

Compassionate accountability calls for an individualized approach. If you notice certain team members requesting more accommodations (flexible schedules, deadline extensions, etc.) or underperforming, don’t jump to the conclusion that they’re taking advantage of you. Instead, schedule a frank discussion to determine the root cause – Stress? Family circumstances? Mental health issues? Lack of resources?

Make it safe for them to share their struggles, so you can co-create viable solutions. At the same time, re-emphasize what their job entails and the work that needs to get done. Work together to come up with a plan to move forward and schedule a check-in after a few weeks to track progress. If the underperformance continues despite multiple attempts, then you have a difficult decision to make – remember, the “accountability” part is just as important!

4. Make it a collective effort.

Amy Gallo, an expert on workplace dynamics, highlights the value of setting accountability as a common goal. She recommends sitting down as a team to assess the objectives you need to meet over the next 3-6 months. What are the conditions you’ll be working under? What are the roadblocks you foresee along the way – both as individuals and as a group? Come up with solutions and find ways to hold each other accountable.

5. Create positive momentum.

Making progress visible is another good way to foster a culture of accountability. Plus, it can provide a great morale boost! The trick is to identify and celebrate all kinds of wins and growth stories. So, along with traditional targets and milestones, expand your “progress tracker” to include new skills, brilliant ideas, “good” failures, and key learnings. Depending on whether your team is collocated or remote, the progress tracker can be housed in a physical space or on a virtual platform. Be sure to review it regularly during team meetings. You can also use it as a resource during one-on-one conversations, either to raise concerns or to offer a healthy dose of positive reinforcement.

6. Know when to let go.

Even as leaders strive to be more compassionate, it’s important to be realistic about what they can and can’t do for their team members. There will be issues you can’t solve, and there will be people who won’t be able to perform at the required standard despite your best efforts. Liane Davey, a team effectiveness advisor, offers valuable advice in her HBR paper: 

Compassionate leaders understand that sometimes the kindest thing you can do is release someone who isn’t performing. That’s because teams have social dynamics, and once an individual has lost your confidence, it’s often obvious to their colleagues that they’re in trouble. That sets up an untenable situation where they lose the confidence of the group and therefore have little chance of succeeding. In that situation, it’s best to channel your compassion into helping the person make a graceful exit and supporting them as they look for a new role.

7. Practice self-compassion.

“Always put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” This standard flight instruction applies to leaders and managers as well! Practicing compassion can be emotionally draining. When you discover the struggles of your team members, you end up worrying about them – while simultaneously dealing with the pressure to generate results.

It’s important to safeguard your own wellbeing by looking after yourself and replenishing your personal stores of resiliency, energy, and joy. Take breaks, make time to do things you love, and lean on people you trust – family, friends, and colleagues. Showing kindness to ourselves is a vital part of good leadership. Unfortunately, it’s not something taught in most business schools!

Using coercion, threats, and penalties to hold people accountable doesn’t work. Neither does an excess of leniency and “niceness”. What we need is to build accountability while demonstrating compassion. The goal is to create an environment where team members can share their challenges, receive the support they need, and continue to perform at their best through the highs and lows of life.


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