Empathy Versus Accountability: How Do You Manage the Tension to Get Optimal Team Performance?

Imagine having one of those days that just has not gone your way. You got in a fight with your wife, your daughter brought home a C in PE (yes, PE), and you backed into your garage door on the way out. On top of that, you missed a deadline on a report to your boss yesterday afternoon.

Shortly after you arrive at work, your boss sticks his head in your office door and says, “I was expecting that report yesterday afternoon. It needs to be on my desk by noon today.” Then turns around and walks off. Now imagine that shortly after you arrive at work, your boss knocks at your door and asks if he can come in. You nod, and he comes in and takes a seat at your desk. He says, “I was expecting your report yesterday afternoon. What happened? That’s not like you.” He attentively listens as you explain briefly, then says honestly, “Wow, it sounds like you’ve been dealing with a lot. What can I do to help? What support do you need to finish the report today?”

Which boss do you want to work for? Which boss do you want to be? Which boss do you want the leaders in your organization to be?

Leading a team is no easy task. It requires a delicate balance of accountability (ensuring team members take ownership for their actions and results) while being empathetic to your team’s needs (i.e., understanding and sharing the feelings of others).

Some might say, “I can’t be all things to all people.” However, as a leader, it is a balancing act that requires you to be both. The consequence of only relying on accountability is that your team can experience burnout, stress, and a lack of engagement. If you only have empathy, your results may suffer, allowing people “off the hook.” You need both.

Traditional views on leadership focus mainly on accountability. But
should they?

empathy vs accountability leadership balance

Leaders can be both accountable and empathetic. They are not mutually exclusive qualities; they complement and reinforce each other in effective leadership.

Leaders who balance empathy and accountability create a positive and productive work environment, foster strong relationships with their team, and drive their organization toward success. By combining empathy with a strong sense of responsibility, leaders create a culture of trust, respect, and collaboration and achieve the best results for their organization and its stakeholders.

What can Gandhi teach us about balance?

Let’s talk about one of the best-known leaders in history, Mahatma Gandhi. After returning to India from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi decided to understand the struggles of the poorest people in the country to fight for independence from British rule. Through his simple life and empathetic approach, he could extend beyond social class and cross religious boundaries.

He was also a leader who demanded accountability from himself and others. He believed in non-violent resistance and held himself and others responsible for their actions. Gandhi’s advocacy for non-violence and individual and collective responsibility inspired many to follow his lead and strive for change through accountable actions.

Balance was achieved through understanding perspectives and motivations while setting expectations and holding himself and others accountable.

Can leaders be empathetic without being considered “weak”?

To effectively motivate and empower your team, it is essential to possess a deep understanding of their perspectives and show them the respect they deserve, both in terms of how you treat them and the quality of service you provide to customers. According to Lolly Daskal, founder of Lead from Within, a global leadership and consulting firm, “empathy is the key skill that leaders must have today, and the most successful leaders are those who possess this quality.”

Despite this, there is a perception among some that empathetic leaders are weak, and that empathy is not a critical aspect of leadership. This notion is misguided, as numerous studies have demonstrated a strong connection between empathy and superior business outcomes.

One such study, “The Relationship between Emotional Intelligence and Transformational Leadership: A Meta-Analysis,” analyzed data from 46 previous studies to examine the relationship between emotional intelligence (which includes empathy) and transformational leadership. The study found that leaders with higher levels of emotional intelligence (including empathy) were more likely to be rated as transformational leaders by their followers. Transformational leaders are known for their ability to inspire and motivate their followers. The study found that leaders with higher levels of empathy were more effective at achieving this outcome.

How can leaders be both accountable and empathetic?

Accountability and empathy don’t both come naturally for most people. Individuals tend to lean one way or another. From a DiSC perspective, people with the Dominance (D) style, for example, are typically better at holding people accountable, while the Influence (I) and Steadiness (S) styles are better at empathy.

To be effective, leaders need to develop that one trait they are less comfortable with (which comes less naturally).

Striking a balance between empathy and accountability as a leader can be challenging. It may not be natural for most people, but fostering a positive and productive work environment requires stepping out of comfort zones. Here are a few suggestions that might help:

  • Set clear expectations: Establish clear goals, roles, and responsibilities for your team so everyone knows what is expected of them. This can help ensure accountability while allowing for empathy to shine through.
  • Conduct a culture check: Carefully look at what’s rewarded, or even incentivized, within your organization (whether informally or formally) to understand what the company emphasizes, then focus on integrating empathy into the company’s culture.
  • Provide coaching conversations: Work with your managers to enhance their listening skills, ask questions, and hold them accountable with moving forward to achieve goals. Let your team know it is ok to be both empathetic and accountable.
  • Lead by example: Model the behavior you expect to see in others and encourage your team members to do the same.
  • Practice looking at situations from different perspectives: Listen to your team members, understand their perspectives, and communicate with them clearly and concisely. Have open discussions practicing what it looks like from another’s perspective. Be a natural observer rather than an active participant. This will help build trust and respect, making it easier for you to hold them accountable.

The best boss I’ve ever had

If you have ever been to a good therapist, there are traits in common with them and “terrific bosses.” Good ones understand the human dynamic while holding people accountable for their actions. Those maintain a supportive and non-judgmental attitude while being transparent and honest in communication and working collaboratively with the patient (or employee) to support their growth and progress. Looking back at my previous managers, I have identified three of them who would qualify as the best. Each of them had one thing in common. Each was either trained as a social worker or counselor.

The most effective leaders foster a supportive and empathetic work environment, promoting the well-being and success of their employees rather than simply demanding results.

Developing an empathetic leadership team that holds people accountable takes training and practice. Many companies have a formalized leadership development programs to help leaders to build these skills.

Action-Strategies-By-Design can help build a program and culture for your organization helps leaders develop the skills to balance the tension between empathy and Accountability to achieve results. The program helps participants discover their leadership style, strengths, and weaknesses and gain insight into the emotional intelligence mindsets that come naturally and those outside their comfort zone.

Using these insights, leaders develop action plans for growth that will help create an environment of inclusion, retain employees, and produce higher financial performance.

Contact us today to discuss your company’s challenges and develop a custom leadership program for your organization.

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POSTED ON: DiSC, Leadership