Compassion vs. Performance: A Conversation, not a Death Match


Compassion vs. Performance: A Conversation, not a Death Match

There is a woman that I’ve become acquainted with – Myra; she’s a technologist with terrific skills and a bright future in tech. Through 2021, she’s thrived under an incentivized compensation program that rewards quality, on-time work deliverables with bonuses beyond her base pay. Unfortunately, life has taken a bit of a turn for her right now and it’s a bit messy. Myra had a very bad accident while skiing over the winter and, upon returning from a short-term disability leave, she continues to miss work because of rehab. While Myra’s base salary was covered during her medical leave, her firm cannot assist with her co-pay and out of pocket medical expenses, nor the student loan bills that will resume in the fall after a long, Covid pause. With several of Myra’s projects now behind schedule, her opportunity for incentive pay is likely shelved. Meanwhile, Myra’s supervisor is feeling the pressure from further up the corporate ladder; is it time to hand over Myra’s projects to another team member with the physical and emotional bandwidth to deliver?

One of the greatest balancing acts in leadership is the one that pits compassion against performance. If you are a great leader, you understand that the members of your team are impacted by many forces: medical, environmental, relational, financial etc. Sometimes even the best performers on the team are zapped by influences that stymie productivity or suspend work altogether. As I’ve mentioned in previous pieces, leaders of this era are responsible to the needs of their workers, developing the kind of rapport that builds trust, easy communication, and expectations of support when the challenges arise. Effective leaders are compassionate leaders. But what happens when deadlines pass, sales goals are not achieved, and sidelined employees remain unable to navigate back into the traffic of a typical week’s work?

Leaders feel the pinch. When performance slips, stakeholders hold leaders accountable.

So, let me suggest a few responses to the compassion vs. performance dilemma. First, never confuse compassionate behaviour with enabling behaviour. While it’s your job to provide support to employees encountering an acute or chronic crisis, you cannot fix the crisis. Encourage the members of your team to tap into the great tools the company offers for challenging situations. Also, be sure to check-in often to see if the situation is improving. However, it’s imperative to remain your employee’s coach and leader not their social worker. Your employee oversees their care, and you oversee your entire team’s performance in service to the client needs and the organization’s mission and vision. There is a big difference between the two.

It’s also helpful to build your organization’s compassion capacity. This is a strategic objective. Be transparent about the types of challenges that workers face in a post-Covid, hyper-inflation world. Audit your organization’s ability to support members of the team who are facing crises and figure out what kind of support is available to address real or potential challenge. Most importantly, do everything you can to build trust within the organization. One of the most effective gifts you can provide to the members of the team is the assurance that it is safe to articulate personal challenges to your leadership when the trouble impacts work performance. Often, our people just want to know that we will listen, and we will care.

One of my mantras and beloved social media hashtags is #NoExcuses. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t show up with care and compassion. We listen, we demonstrate care and compassion, and then build a plan together to achieve realistic performance outcomes.