It’s Ok not to solve all your employees’ problems

Person on tightrope with person standing in the way

At our Safe Space event in November, we explored the current tightrope leaders face, exacerbated by the impact of the recent pandemic. Namely 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. Leaders and HR professional told us that many want to continue this connection. But they are struggling to redraw the boundaries between home and work, shouldering the weight of trying to solve all their employees’ problems.

Involve senior executives

A recent HBR article by Heidi Gardner and Mark Mortensen gives some helpfully practical advice for leaders. The thesis of their argument is that middle managers should draw senior executives onto the tightrope with them…or at least ask them to spend a little time there!

This can be done in two ways. 

Reduce the performance pressure from the top

Firstly many frontline employees often know the “what” of work, but not the “why”. By asking executives to spend time explaining market pressures, they are helping employees to better understand the performance demand of the business. This not only enables employees to make sense of the performance pressure, it helps them to see how their work contributes to the organisations ultimate objectives and success.

Increase compassion and so change the performance dialogue

Gardner and Mortensen also advocate educating senior executives in how to share the responsibility for delivering compassionate leadership. If leaders shield their senior executives from employee challenges, it’s no wonder they are distant from employees’ real needs. By telling executives about the problem and by getting them to experience some of the issues directly, these seemingly distant executives are better able to empathise with employees’ challenges. Hearing and experiencing employees’ issues first-hand increases compassion.

The paradox of performance and compassion

We agree that senior executive do need to be brought into the fray, shouldering some accountability for both performance and compassion. However, delivering performance and compassion is not a problem to be solved. It’s a paradox. 

Leading both performance and compassion is a paradox because:

  1. It is ongoing – it is a never-ending tension that needs to be managed dynamically 
  2. Performance and compassion are interdependent – leaders need to do both at the same time. 

We often fall into the trap of thinking that one part of a paradox comes at the cost of the other i.e. if we’re driving performance we can’t be compassionate, and vice versa – if we’re being compassionate, we can’t drive performance.  But this is not necessarily the case.  And it is this kind of thinking that can get us trapped or stuck. Chris Rogers argues that managers must embrace paradox as opportunities for learning and understanding the impact of the organisational dynamics and business performance; as well as helping others to live with and exploit the challenges and opportunities they bring.

But paradoxes are not solved, they are managed. There is no magic answer, no right or wrong. Managing requires us to explore the positives and negatives of both performance and compassion. As a result, there will always be tensions. One of the outcomes of this tension is we can’t always (nor should always) solve all our employees’ problems. That makes us uncomfortable.

Leading being uncomfortable

In managing the paradox of compassion versus performance, we’d love to be able to always support employees’ requests. However, sometimes we do need to say no to both our executive leaders and our employees.

Let’s work with an example. Imagine you’ve had a request for an employee to be allowed to attend a daily mid-day yoga class for their wellbeing. It clashes with your regular team meeting which has to be at lunch-time because of the time zones your team work in. You might be experiencing:

  • Thoughts – “I should be able to allow this employee to attend their yoga class each week even though it blows our team meeting out of the water”, “I’m a bad manager and person for saying no”, “I can’t believe they’ve asked for this.”
  • Emotions – guilt about the employee’s wellbeing, anger that you are being put in this position.
  • Memories – the last time you said no to an employee they took it to HR and you were humiliated.
  • Images – a picture in your head of the staff canteen with people talking about you.

To manage the paradox, there will be times when we have to say “no” to an employee (or our boss). Many of us shy away from doing this. We’d rather take on extra work or rejig the working day rather than experience the uncomfortable thoughts and emotions that come with saying “no.”

Not solving all your employees’ problems

So how do we take the step to being OK not to solve all of our employees’ problems?

In our everyday work helping women to lead unapologetic lives, one of the foundational practices we teach is accepting being uncomfortable as a leader. We use the 4 A’s of acceptance – acknowledgeallowaccommodateappreciate.

Acknowledge – mindfully notice and name your thoughts and feelings e.g. here is guilt, I am noticing I am thinking I am overwhelmed.

Allow – we don’t have to fight our experiences or turn our thoughts into positive ones. We need to allow our bodies to experience them, being aware of where we notice them, perhaps in our shoulders, stomach or head.

Accommodate – next make some space for these thoughts and feelings in your body. Breathe around them.

Appreciate – this is the most difficult step. The uncomfortable feeling that comes from saying “no” to an employee request is because something about the situation is important to us. It gives you a clue that there is something here that you care about. Appreciation is about tuning into our emotions and extracting the wisdom. Exploring our emotions in this way usually connects us with values, goals and needs. 

It’s OK not to solve all your employees’ problems. If managing the tension between performance and compassions always leaves us shouldering the burden of our employees (or bosses’ needs), we can cycle through the 4A’s to give us the space to to explore the options open to us.  The result can be a commitment to action and a step toward the both/and of compassion and performance.

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