3 Questions for Balancing Empathy and Expectations as a Leader

Quite a while ago, I wrote about the “Es of LEadership” with empathy being one of them.  Not included in these essential “Es” was “expectations”.   And as the article on empathy points to, sometimes managing expectations and having empathy seem to be in direct conflict.

Setting, communicating, monitoring and maintaining expectations is a critical skill for leaders.  We must maximize performance of others through effectively setting expectations high and constantly pushing others to reach higher.  When we do so, we provide meaningful and challenging work, which has been shown to increase worker satisfaction leading to higher productivity (and profits).

Yet also as leaders, we always need to put people first, realizing they have demands both inside and outside of work.  People are our greatest asset, and we must be able to put ourselves in others’ shoes to lead effectively.  In other words, we must establish an empathetic approach to leading with a genuine interest in the whole person.

So what do we do when “e” of expectation seems to be in direct conflict with the “e” of empathy?

For example, say you have an employee that is not performing their job satisfactorily.  You are aware that this employee is dealing with several difficult personal issues.  He/she is in the process of getting a divorce, has a mom that is suffering from cancer and has recently brought a troubled teenager into his/her home to support.

You take off your shoes and walk around in his or hers for a bit to establish empathy towards them.  You feel for this person, yet they are not maintaining performance standards at work.  Do you talk to them?  Do you ignore the issue?

Bottom line, when do you lower your expectation bar for the sake of empathy??

Here are three questions to consider for how to respond when empathy and expectations seem to be in conflict:

 1.  Is the need to compromise expectations for empathy an established pattern or an isolated event?  In the above example, has the employee had an issue with performance before this set of personal issues arose or has the person been a star performer in the past? 

2. Does acting in empathy enable a continuation of bad choices? As a leader, our job in not to take ownership and responsibility for bad choices others have made either inside or outside of work and their subsequent consequences.  If you ignore expectations or lower them, will it enable the continuation of bad choices that impact not only your business but also the person?  You may have heard parents call this “tough love”.  And tough love is still love and empathy is a component of love.  Maintaining expectations may actually be an act of empathy.

3. Does empathy for one cause you to be lacking in empathy towards the whole? If we let someone’s performance suffer and it causes others who do a good job day in and day out to take up the slack that shouldn’t be their responsibility, then we aren’t acting as a leaders.  When we do this, we are communicating to those star performers that it is okay not to meet expectations. We are actually giving the person who seemingly needs empathy the green light to NOT act in empathy towards their team.  Realizing that our actions have consequences that impact the greater whole is important both for us and for conveying this message to others.

If you walk through these questions and realize a person needs a break from responsibilities of the job in order to resolve situations and come back better able to perform and meet expectations, then my hope is that you allow that flexibility in your company policies for a leave of absence.   As Workforce magazine points out in its feature article- “A Monumental Problem” from the August 2014 issue, mental health, stress and burnout is a major issue in today’s workplace.  Sometimes the best thing to do is allow people opportunities to regroup and come back better for having that time.

However, if you walk through these questions and realize that you are just avoiding confrontation with empathy as your guise, become the better leader by tackling the difficult issue of refusing to lower the bar.  Often, when we lower our expectations that we know are fair expectations given the person’s skill level and expertise coupled with what is needed for the job, lowering the bar is potentially the inverse of empathetic.   It sabotages putting trust in people and empowering them to do a great job. And at our core, we all want to be valued and trusted.  When we take that away from people by avoiding difficult issues, we aren’t acting as leaders and we aren’t being very empathetic.

Mary Ila Ward

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