A few weeks back, I was leading a class on How Leaders Create and Manage Remote and Hybrid Teams. Two of the participants got into a heated exchange that was very instructive. It raised a good question: When does empathy toward your team members get in the way of managing performance?

One of the participants said how much he liked seeing people when they worked from home. He felt he learned more about their personal lives than he did when they were in the office. He said it made him more empathetic towards them. That’s when another participant said (paraphrasing here) “Empathy is great, but at some point, they need to do the work. What do you do if they’re not getting the job done?”

Many leaders struggle with the kind of binary thinking this second manager was experiencing. It feels like we either manage employees hard, expecting the best, or we are so concerned about their feelings that performance slips and the team’s output suffers as a result.

What is empathy?

Let’s start with what empathy is—and isn’t. By definition, empathy is sensing other people's emotions, coupled with imagining what someone else might be thinking or feeling. It is not a willingness to so identify someone’s circumstances that you fail to hold them accountable for their work.

Empathy is a critical skill for leaders. To some degree, most of us are hard-wired to pick up cues when we are in close proximity to people. Body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions help us relate to them. These physical signs give us valuable clues to working with them. Is someone obviously stressed? Pushing them at that moment may not be the most productive way to get their best work. Is someone just having a bad day, or is there something bigger going on?

Could both leaders be right?

The first leader in this story learned that using webcams and taking the time to examine what was going on in the employee’s world made it easier to work with that person appropriately. Are they alone at work? Do they have a dedicated workspace or are they working in a room full of kids, dogs, and craziness? Are they feeling isolated or overwhelmed? All that information helps a leader connect to the employee and help them in multiple ways.

The second manager was concerned that by recognizing the challenges each employee goes through, you then fail to help them be accountable for the quality of their work and contributions to the team. After all, they are hired to do a job. Those expectations must be met regardless of what’s going on at home. This can be a risk, although not as likely as many people think.

Can empathy actually help increase accountability?

Emotionally intelligent leaders use empathy to build trusting, honest relationships. After all, failure to execute one’s job usually comes down to one of three issues:

  • Knowledge – Do they know what they are supposed to do?
  • Skills – If they know, do they have the skills or ability to complete the task?
  • Attitude – If they have the skills and knowledge but still aren’t executing at an acceptable level, what’s going on?

Leaders who focus on performance without empathy often have a harder time coaching people and correcting performance issues. Empathetic leaders often pick up on the signs of trouble earlier. When there is an issue, the conversations are often more candid and informative. Is someone just having a temporary lack of motivation, or is something major going on? Will they admit to a knowledge or skill gap if they trust their manager more and believe she has their best interest at heart? What is getting in the way of that person doing the best job they can?

Empathy is not an excuse for failing to coach performance or investigate why work isn’t being done. It’s a valuable tool for doing it well, getting the best from everyone, and building and maintaining great work relationships.

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Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to develop communication and leadership skills for almost 26 years. He has taught and consulted at Fortune 500 companies and startups around the world. For the last 18 years, he’s focused on the growing need to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments.

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