Empathy and Accountability - Where does the Twain Meet?

Empathy and Accountability - Where does the Twain Meet?

Anjali Raghuvanshi - Chief People Officer, Randstad India, 0

The ‘Third Age Suit’ is an interesting technology-led creation that Ford introduced close to 30 years ago. It is a suit designed and worn by Ford’s engineers to simulate physical conditions and limitations that different drivers – especially seniors and pregnant women experience. It helps them to understand the impact of such limitations so that they can design cars for their ease, safety, and comfort.

Today, as empathy has rightly risen to become a vital leadership trait, I cannot but help marvel at the foresight that Ford showed decades back.

Entering a New Era of Empathy in the Workplace
The workplace has adapted itself to three eras of people management post the onset of the industrial revolution. The first focused on execution excellence (process standardization, quality control, planning of workflows, etc.), which brought in a ‘command-and-control’ style of management to drive efficiency goals. Once scale reached, knowledge gained in importance to usher in the second era of expertise makes providing services became a primary goal. The need now was transformed to manage knowledge workers – and the ‘command-and-control’ style had to give way to the participative coaching style.

With the summits of scale and services being conquered, creating meaningful experiences became a powerful corporate purpose. COVID-19 added a blistering momentum to this goal, bringing, in its wake the third era of people management – the ‘empathy’ era.

Empathy is a positive push for organizations, leaders and managers to be insightfully understanding and empower their people to navigate multi-dimensional stressors – especially those brought about by the pandemic. Today, work is fast-forwarding to a new normal impatiently catching up on the time lost over the last two years. Thus, an all-important question arises – where does the twain between empathy and accountability meet?

Are Empathy and Accountability Really Mutually Exclusive?
Answering this question becomes simple when one removes the ‘either-or’ compulsion from the equation. The truth is, there is no need for empathy and accountability to be at loggerheads. Being empathetic does not mean one has to lower performance standards. Conversely, holding employees accountable need not demand less compassion. The trick lies in merging the best of both. Let’s see how we can achieve this integration.

Figure out how to manage people when they work
through networks, and not through hierarchical lines of command
Working through collaborative networks in the hybrid model calls for different roles, organizational structures, performance standards and metrics. A classic example is Apple’s model of appointing Directly Responsible Individuals (DRIs) for every project. The DRIs are empowered with access to cross-functional teams and decisions, and this eliminates decision-making bottlenecks, while motivating performance.

Consistency and fairness will be the two strong balancing poles of empathy and accountability

Skill and behavioral requirements – of both employees and managers – will have to be revisited and reimagined. Creating a psychologically safe hybrid work environment, emotional intelligence, communication skills for diversely distributed workforce, effectiveness in setting the right expectations, and engaging the team to fulfil them, are capabilities that they need to be trained, coached and mentored on.

Focus on communicating why accountability is critical
To achieve accountability with empathy, the ‘why’ is absolutely important. Let them know why it is important for them, their clients and their organization’s mission. This will get their buy-in and trust, and as we know, trust is the bedrock of empathy and high performance. Accountability then becomes a natural outcome.
Be intentional in your communication. Be both considerate but firm in drawing the boundaries, in letting your people know the non-negotiables. Let them know the extent of their empowerment with resources and methods of working. Reinforce this with 360-degree feedback about what is working well, and what could be better.

Provide flexibility, but be consistent with what accountability means
Now that you have explained the ‘why’, communicated the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, and and understood your team’s motivational triggers, go ahead, and offer reasonable flexibility to do their job as it works for them. Believe me, if you have communicated clear and measurable goals, this flexibility will actually motivate your people to outperform and over-deliver! For example, Facebook has a flextime program that allows employees to align their work hours with their lifestyle – and they say it has actually led to greater productivity.
But wait! You will need to close the loop with consistent expectations and measurement of performance. Consistency and fairness will be the two strong balancing poles of empathy and accountability.

It is important for leaders to balance the scales of being empathetic and of making tough decisions for the overall good. It calls for creating an organizational culture founded on respect. It not only lets people know what is expected of them, but also motivates them to deliver, and go the extra mile to exceed expectations. It transforms mistakes to lessons that elevate capabilities. How well we, as leaders, balance this dynamic relationship holds the key.