Coaching, leadership, Tips&Tricks

Compassion and Accountability Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

Self-development as the cornerstone of strong, empowering leadership.

Since the pandemic began, there’s been a call for managers to be understanding and lenient with employees as they navigate the stressors the global crisis has brought on. Now that restrictions are lifting in many parts of the world, some managers are wondering how to continue to balance compassion for the people on their team and accountability for getting work done.

  • Should you offer flexibility around deadlines and performance expectations even if it means missing team targets?
  • How can you be understanding about what people have been through — and continue to go through — while holding them accountable?
  • And should you worry about being taken advantage of?

These questions were posed to several experts who study motivation and compassion at work to see what advice they have to offer managers at this time, and across the board, they said now is not a time to let up on the care and consideration you’ve shown your employees over the past year. Nor should you push people without also considering what they need emotionally.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean you have to lower your standards.
Rather than thinking of it as a trade-off between compassion and accountability, think about how you can combine the two.


Here’s a summary of some advice for how to navigate the seeming tension between being caring and thoughtful and holding people to high standards.

Reframe how you think about the last year

Rather than thinking, “We lowered our expectations,” focus on everything you and your team did get done. Chances are that it was a lot, accomplished in not particularly easy circumstances.

And instead of seeing the way you interacted with your employees as “being lenient,” to think of it as “being flexible, which is the right thing to do.”

And reframe how you think about motivating employees

You may also need to rethink your assumptions about what motivates employees. If you see compassion and accountability as opposite sides of a coin, you’re thinking about it wrong.

Many managers believe they need to be tough to get people to produce, but the research doesn’t support that. In fact, people who feel they’re under threat focus on what they already know how to do and fail to be creative or innovative.

You may be able to “extract labor” from people in the short term, but over the long term, it has the opposite effect. In other words, coming down hard on people rarely works, especially if they’re already suffering. People’s response to compassion is often to invest more in the organization.

“So being compassionate and caring is not just a nice thing to do — it’s critical to performance.”

Don’t ignore the reality

Don’t ignore the fact that most people are still feeling burned out. We are all depleted, and reopening offices isn’t going to make that go away.

It’s not going to be a stress-free world. There’s always going to be something going on in people’s lives.

Experts also caution that the “old style” of dealing with mental health at work — essentially keeping it hidden and pretending it doesn’t exist — just doesn’t work. We know now that people want to be able to talk openly about mental health issues in their workplaces.

Focus on resilience

Resilience plays an important role. The limiting factor for many employees is going to be how they handle stress and everything going on in their lives. Some people handle it fine — it’s part of their disposition to be able to manage the stress. Others will need more support. This is especially true for anyone who bore the brunt of the trauma and grief over the past year.

Rather than wondering when you can stop asking people how they’re doing, you should be thinking, “How can we help you manage your life and perform better?”

While it doesn’t fall solely on you, as their manager, to help a struggling employee to build their resilience, you can play a role.

Have individual conversations — and plans

This all requires that you talk with your team members one on one so you understand their unique circumstances. Don’t assume you know what those are, even if you’ve been in close contact. Things shift.

Make it safe for them to tell you about what’s happening in their lives and how that’s impacting their work so you can figure out the best way to move forward. At the same time, you should also make clear what the job requires.

Take it to the group

One of the best ways to encourage accountability is to do it at the group level. Rather than pushing individuals, find ways to have team members keep each other accountable.

As experts say, “Accountability is a collective goal, and it works best if the team can find a way that we are all achieving.” So sit down as a group and problem solve together.

Last but not least

Take care of yourself

While taking care of your employees, don’t lose sight of yourself. You’re likely feeling the same stress as your team members and the pressure to produce results.

Managers are caught in the middle, as they often are. It’s a tall order to be “meeting targets set by upper management and caring for the well-being of employees at the same time”.


Sometimes, having a sounding board and being able to say things out loud (your concerns, ambitions, thoughts, feelings, doubts, …) can help you to put things back in perspective. At the same time, some practical tools can be offered to help you manage specific situations.

Are you interested in personal and/or leadership coaching, view our offer or book a (free) introductory session to align/ finetune our mutual expectations.

Coaching is possible in English and in Dutch

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