Courageous Compassion: Balancing Empathy & Accountability

Michael is a long term, loyal employee who has dedicated himself to serving Memorial Hospital and the local community for over 20 years. From starting out as a tech in an ancillary department, Michael grew to take on supervisory roles and ultimately became Department Director. He was highly effective in his role for many years, but in the more recent past he has been struggling on a number of fronts.  

Michael’s role has grown from the small department he took over several years ago. Memorial has expanded and through a combination of acquisitions and management contracts is now made up of a network of 8 facilities spread across the region. As Director of the Department at the main campus, Michael now has responsibility to provide oversight of that function across all of the facilities with the goal to seek out and leverage opportunities to work across campuses, sharing resources and best practices to improve performance. 

Like many networks, Memorial’s young network has encountered challenges in realizing the potential of integration, struggling to overcome the real and perceived operational and cultural differences that have given rise in many cases to local resistance to change. For Michael, the pace and character of his job has changed dramatically as he works to manage across the network. He has grown frustrated at how hard it has become to get things done, and many of his stakeholders have become frustrated at him at what they perceive as his inability to deliver on agreed upon performance expectations.

As Michael’s supervisor, you have struggled over what to do with Michael. When you meet with him, it is clear that he is trying and wants desperately to do a good job. However, he seems almost overwhelmed by the pace and scope of the work for which he is responsible. He can no longer jump in personally to assure things get done well and on time, but has had difficulty building a team upon which he can rely to get the job done. 

You have made several accommodations to help ease his load by assigning to others work that logically belongs to Michael, but that is becoming increasingly problematic and a source of resentment. At the same time, Michael is someone for whom there is tremendous and well-deserved affection earned through years of loyal service. You can no longer tolerate the performance gap. But it seems equally wrong to take action against someone like Michael.

Protecting the person + protecting performance: Should you modify expectations?

This scenario can be one of the most difficult for even the most seasoned executive.

What is the right course of action when a dedicated employee with a positive work history struggles to meet the evolving expectations of their job?

How do you at once demonstrate respect and compassion for that dedicated employee without foregoing opportunities to restructure roles, change processes and drive improved performance?

Unfortunately, in many instances the desire to be compassionate toward the affected employee takes precedence leading to actions which, over time, can have negative, unintended consequences on the organization, the team and, ultimately, the individual in question.

Those actions can take many forms, including:

  • Modifying performance expectations in time or scope.
  • Offloading responsibilities to others to contract role expectations.
  • Personally taking on responsibilities more appropriately delegated to the employee

… or any of a number of other “workarounds.”

The cost of misguided compassion

Redistribution of responsibilities diminishes the overall productivity and effectiveness of the team. The leader who steps in for the struggling employee takes time away from their primary role and adds to the struggle to optimize workload and priorities. Resentment can creep in as those who have taken on the additional responsibility become frustrated at the accommodation of their colleague. Over time, the credibility and strength of the leader is diminished as they are seen as too weak to address the accountability of the underperforming employee.

Ironically, if the goal of taking such actions is to show compassion to an underperforming employee, the reality is often quite the opposite. Whether acknowledged openly or not, struggling performers recognize that despite their best efforts they are falling short. They feel the frustration of their colleagues and stakeholders, and tire of trying to explain or defend their gap in performance.

As they become more defensive and self-protective, they see their credibility slowly erode. They are at a loss as to how to work their way out of the situation which often creates an unhealthy level of persistent stress and fear.

Avoiding the moment of trauma that comes with removing someone from their role in fact leads to prolonged suffering that is neither compassionate nor effective for the person or the organization. It takes courage and true compassion to make the decision that is ultimately best for all concerned, including the person affected.

Discerning the right course of action

Here, then, are a few thoughts to help you sort through the right course of action in these difficult moments:

  • Pause: As a role evolves, pause before assuming the incumbent is automatically the right person for the job. As scope, pace and complexity changes, the skills needed for success may be very different from what was required by the role in the past. Assess whether the person has those skills or is capable of developing them.
  • Be open, supportive and direct: Be open and supportive about any potential gaps you see between the requirements of the role and the capabilities of the person. Remember that you have an obligation not only to the organization but to that person to assure they are prepared to be successful in the role. You are not doing them any favors if you advance them before they are ready and they fail, not because they lacked potential but for lack of sufficient preparation.
  • Consider if the gaps are in areas where development is feasible: Assess whether the person’s gaps are in skills which can be developed with a reasonable level of coaching and support or if the individual’s experience, personality and leadership profile are a lack of fundamental fit for the role. Gaps related to technical knowledge tend to be more amendable to focused development. Often it is the behavioral competencies of leadership which present a more formidable challenge.
  • Design an intentional, specific, time-limited development plan: If the person wants, and you feel has earned, the opportunity to try and close the gap, create and deploy a development plan, and closely monitor and communicate as to progress against the plan. Identify, as specifically as possible, a set of actions, experiences and resources aimed at addressing the identified areas in which there is a skill gap. Include regular opportunities for feedback during the development process.
  • Make every effort to preserve the dignity of the person involved: In all cases, if you determine that the gap is too great and cannot be filled, do everything possible to provide support and preserve the dignity of the person involved. Consider whether there are other roles in the structure that do align well with that person’s capabilities, whether inside the organization or somewhere else. While it can be hard for someone to “step back” into what is perceived as a “lesser” role, done thoughtfully it can work. Genuinely celebrate and appreciate the person’s past contributions. Recognize the situation as a lack of “fit” not a “failure.”
Avoiding a false choice

The inclination to accommodate the performance gaps of a dedicated employee with a positive work history trying their best to meet expectations which have grown beyond their capabilities is understandable and admirable. It is desirable to give people the opportunity and support to grow and to address performance gaps.

However, when it becomes clear that the effort is futile and the matter is more one of fit than development, failing to address that situation in a straightforward and respectful fashion can become anything but compassionate.

What is needed is a combination of courage and compassion, demonstrating the strength and skill to help the person navigate from a role for which they are not fit to one in which they are equipped to flourish.

As a leader, avoid the false choice between compassion and accountability. Choose a course that reflects a measure of both, focused on what is ultimately the most compassionate outcome for the employee, serving in a role for which they are equipped for success.

 

 

Robert Porter
About the author

Robert (Bob) Porter is an accomplished organizational leader with over 30 years’ experience in health system leadership.

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