Walking the tightrope between compassion and performance

Walking a tightrope

How do managers walk the tightrope between compassion and performance? And how can organisations help leaders to manage both people and performance in the post-pandemic world? 

The changing workplace 

Before Covid-19 employees could choose how much of their home life to bring to work, with many drawing a firm line between the two. The focus was on employee performance at work. Leaders, of course, needed to build empathy to understand perspectives and viewpoints within their teams and with colleagues. But the word compassion was not in our dictionary of leadership terms.  

However, in a matter of months the virtual workplace was in our homes, with managers getting an intimate insight into our personal lives – cats, dogs, family drama, child-care, relationships, fears, hobbies, and dreams, along with the day to day mundane. This broke the unspoken rule of the game at work, “what happens at home stays at home.” The result was a seismic shift in the dynamic between employees and managers. During this time leaders stepped into a role somewhere between counsellor, mental health supporter, negotiator and performance coach. 

The “new normal”

Now workplaces are changing again. For the last 12 months, many employers have got to grips with the new ways of working that have opened-up. Understanding of the practical and operational challenges of post-pandemic flexible hybrid environments has mushroomed. The CIPD estimate that around 25% of the UK workforce might soon be working in this way and provide advice on all aspects such as planning, policies, procedures, legal implications and communication. 

However one aspect has been overlooked. 

For a brief period, employees experienced a form of management and leadership where they could (and sometimes had to) expose all aspects of their life to their boss. There was no pretence, no mask. Little was hidden. Front line workers navigated the fear of their own and their loved ones’ safety. Office staff grappled with loneliness and isolation. Parents shared tiredness from trying to look after children and do a full days’ work. Families grieved loss. Managers paid attention, asked questions and listened with compassion. 

The leadership tightrope 

Leaders are not new to dilemmas. But as we leave the pandemic and business returns to the “new kind of normal”, managers are now left a new kind of dilemma.  

On the one hand they face the questions: 

  • ‘how much should you share with your manager?’  
  • ‘what should you ask of your employee?  

And on the other hand,  

  • ‘is it my responsibility as a manager to draw boundaries with my team? and if not, then whose responsibility is it?’ 
  • ‘how do I look after my own needs (as a leader responsible for performance) as well as that of individuals?’ 

Executives expect their managers and their teams to deliver results. At the same time, after two years of turmoil, employees have experienced managers who lean in, are compassionate and connect with their humanity. And many want to continue this connection.  

Moving along the tightrope 

This should come as no surprise to us. Psychologist and relationship expert John Gottman calls these exchanges “bids” . Bids are verbal or non-verbal, big or small exchanges between two people. They are subtle requests to connect. We might not want to say out loud in the workplace, “pay attention to me!” So instead, we use bids as a way to reach out – it might be with a question or sharing something. When the other person acknowledges the bid and responds, a powerful turning towards connection is made.  

Bids matter because they form the basis of trust and emotional connection. Gottman found that people in long lasting relationships responded to a bid by turning towards 86% of the time. In relationships that stuttered and failed, this happened only 33% of the time. 

In this new normal, managers walk the tightrope between performance demands from above and calls for compassion from below. Ignoring these calls for compassion from employees comes at a cost. Whilst we might not consciously be aware of this, we keep the score on how many bids are accepted or rejected by the other person, impacting our feelings of trust and loyalty.  

Further, managers are caught between the executive team and their employees. Research shows that power reduces empathy. Senior executives identify less with both the frontline employees’ challenges and the middle managers who must deal with these issues daily.  

What can you do? 

How can organisations help leaders to manage both people and performance in the post-pandemic world? 
Join us for our Safe Space on 23 November, 2-3.30pm UK. We’ll explore how expectations of managers have changed, and what we can do to help them walk the tightrope of the new normal. 
Our Safe Space events aim to bring people together to explore a thorny issue. No expert input, no pre-prepared answers, simply a space to discuss what is going on, and think about what might be helpful. This event is open to all – we look forward to seeing you there. 

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