Leadership Advice

Empathy and accountability aren’t incompatible: 5 management tips

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

Empathy is an essential skill for leaders. You’ve heard it before — from me and many others; I’ve also heard from managers about a related challenge they face. While they’re committed to listening, to being supportive, to responding with creativity and flexibility, they’re also responsible for ensuring quality, civility, and fair distribution of work on their teams. How do they balance it all?

The good news is that empathy and accountability aren’t incompatible. Managers can care deeply about someone’s backstory while nonetheless telling them that they can’t verbally abuse colleagues. They can accommodate a request for an adapted work schedule while still providing constructive feedback on quality or productivity. 

Balancing both depends on the systems you build and the emotional intelligence and communication skills you have — or learn.

Here are five things that help ensure a culture of empathy and accountability:

  1. Clarity on standards: It’s more important than ever to be clear on expectations and standards. First, it’s wise to review yours. Are your expectations about productivity and quality realistic, given staffing and changing circumstances? Is there a shared understanding among all your managers? Often managers have their own mental guidebooks (ask anyone who has ever “editor shopped”) and that can lead to mixed management messages. Get on the same page and communicate, communicate, communicate to staff.
  2. Healthy diet of feedback: Speaking of communication — feedback done right is a daily reinforcement of quality as well as personal connections. If you’ve operated on an “if you don’t hear from me, assume you are doing a good job” approach, abandon it. You are setting up a culture where the majority of your feedback will be negative. Provide a healthy, ongoing diet. Never miss a chance for the positive, as it puts the negatives in a bigger context. And remember: when it comes to feedback, your specificity proves your sincerity.
  3. Managers who truly coach: Telling people their work hit the mark or missed it isn’t enough. Often, managers simply “fix” people’s work and tell them why they did it. Or they don’t tell them anything. That doesn’t help people grow or feel their managers are invested in them. Managers who coach look for patterns in people’s work, get to know their processes, their thinking, their hopes and fears. They use that knowledge to identify strengths and challenges, then provide guidance. 
  4. Emphasis on emotional intelligence: People often equate emotional intelligence with empathy, but that’s just one aspect of it. The ability to read people, read the room, and build relationships is also essential to emotional intelligence. This helps you know when and how to approach situations. It helps you choose your words carefully by really thinking about how they will be heard by a variety of stakeholders. You become more effective in reaching your high goals by involving people rather than just informing them. 
  5. Bright line on bullying: Sadly, there are people whose daily behaviors demean and discourage others. They may be talented, but they are jerks. And management, through avoidance and workarounds, may have enabled that bullying behavior. The most empathetic thing you can do for the rest of the team is to confront and end that unprofessional behavior. Talk personally with the offenders and state publicly to the team that civility is an important workplace standard. (Point of privilege here: Consider getting your team involved with the Power Shift Project’s “Workplace Integrity” training, which I lead.) 

If any of this seems like a heavy lift, then it’s a sign you have some work to do. Make it a 2022 resolution that you share across your team. Describe what success looks like and involve people in the planning.

When you’ve set those benchmarks for quality, do one more thing: invite people to hold you — and each other — accountable.


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Naveen Khajanchi
Naveen Khajanchi
1 year ago