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Today’s leaders face a tough mandate. They’re expected to hold team members accountable for their actions—both in terms of fulfilling job duties and adhering to stated policies and standards—while at the same time practicing empathy. Leaders must help employees feel psychologically safe in their work environments and be understanding about the life challenges that everyone faces. This is a seriously tough balance to strike right now.
As the nation and world begin to find a new normal while dealing with the pandemic, stressors on leaders and employees are intense. Empathy is absolutely needed—particularly in a tight job market where workers can and will walk out the door at a moment’s notice. But organizations are also trying to get back to a “new normal,” driving a heightened urgency for efficiency and productivity. It’s not an easy situation for anyone. The first step to overcoming it is consciously recognizing that you, as a leader, need to think hard about how to balance accountability and empathy and, from there, find your own distinctive “sweet spot.”
Accountability Vs. Responsibility
Most leaders could define the words “accountability” and “empathy.” However, to conquer the challenge at hand, you need to develop a clear cognitive framework for each term beyond a simple definition.
Let’s start with accountability. Merriam-Webster defines the word as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” And therein lies an important distinction that’s a good place for leaders to start building a deeper understanding of accountability: Accountability and responsibility aren’t synonymous, at least not when applied to the workplace.
Job responsibilities are the stated duties of a given position. They’re what you’re supposed to do. Accountability is whether you fulfill those responsibilities and—this is the important part—how willing and able you are to own up to what went right and what went wrong in the course of doing so.
On Being Empathetic
Now, let’s move on to empathy. I think most people would agree that empathizing means understanding someone’s situation and being sensitive to it. In some cases, it means you’ve been in virtually the same set of circumstances and know exactly what it’s like. Of course, knowing what empathy is and being empathetic are two different things. Leaders need to develop certain traits to demonstrate empathy while they’re holding team members accountable for their job-related actions.
In 2007, the medical journal Advances in Nursing Science published an article entitled “Toward a holistic conceptualization of empathy for nursing practice” by Theresa Wiseman. It contains four traits of empathy that have since been widely discussed and accepted far beyond the healthcare sector. They are:
1. Perspective taking. This means stepping outside of your own mindset and consciously trying to see things from another person’s point of view.
2. Staying out of judgment. We’ve all said it: “Don’t judge!” However, being judgmental tends to be a reflex. During interactions, avoid inferring that someone else’s response to a situation, whether emotional or actual, was invalid or wrong—at least until you’ve gathered all the facts.
3. Recognizing the emotion. Just putting a name to how another person is feeling can lead a conversation in the right direction. For example, if an employee comes into your office clearly upset over the actions of a colleague, your initial response could be, “It sounds like you’re angry.”
4. Communication. This is probably the broadest and most challenging of the four traits. It refers to being able to effectively express everything that must come after understanding the other person’s viewpoint, not judging them and recognizing the emotions in play. Leaders need strong communication skills to articulate and enforce accountability while showing empathy.
Tips For Finding The Balance. The good news is that some of the tools for striking the right balance may already be in place at your organization. They include:
Many leaders struggle with accountability because it feels punitive. No one wants to be the school principal taking students to task. But accountability is really more of a collaboration; you’re helping employees take ownership of their work, learn from mistakes and build confidence from their successes. And empathy? Well, it sounds simple, but it’s not always easy. Taking the time to learn how to show empathy and be an empathic leader is worthwhile and, I promise, it gets easier.
Have you ever been in a business meeting where you were the only member of a particular societal group, marginalized or otherwise? If so, did you have an opinion or idea to share but decided to keep it to yourself because you didn’t feel safe or felt you had to "hide" yourself?
Perhaps you believed all or most of the other attendees would immediately dismiss or harshly criticize the notion. Or maybe you felt that expressing the thought would invite retribution or exclusion later. Sadly, many people have had this experience. And it’s too bad—not only for the individual in question but also for the organization itself.
The issue at play here is called “psychological safety,” and it’s something that more and more employers are finding to be a major driver of building positive morale, productivity and innovation.
Here are some tips on how leaders like you can create a psychologically safe workplace.
Take the temperature.
The term “psychological safety” was coined by Dr. Amy C. Edmondson of the Harvard Business School. On her website, she defines it as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
The last few words of her description are key. Feeling safe to speak up or share in other ways isn’t only about having permission to do so; it’s about working in an environment in which one can take risks and make mistakes without worry of “losing points” on a performance evaluation or being reprimanded.
With all this in mind, the first thing leaders should do when looking to improve psychological safety is “take the temperature” of their organizations or teams—that is, assess how psychologically safe or unsafe your workers feel. This can be difficult! It’s natural to want to assume your employees can express themselves freely but... can they?
There’s only one way to find out: Ask. Start by holding one-on-ones with your people managers and honestly discuss the state of their teams. Is there strong participation in meetings? Do certain employees dominate discussions, while others hardly ever contribute? Are idea-sharing and feedback regularly encouraged?
Dr. Edmondson herself recommends that organizations conduct psychological safety surveys to gather a variety of data points and determine how much improvement is needed. Design a set of statements such as “If you make a mistake, it’s held against you” and “It’s safe to take risks on this team.” Then ask to what degree the respondent agrees or disagrees.
Throw a party.
Once you have a good idea of how psychologically safe your workplace is, you can take specific actions to improve the environment in which your employees work. These will obviously depend on your specific needs but could include:
• Openly discussing the topic to “break the ice,”
• Training or upskilling leadership or supervisors and
• Confronting problematic employees to clarify expectations or provide training and, if/when appropriate, putting them on performance improvement plans to eliminate toxic behaviors.
Generally, however, promoting psychological safety is kind of like throwing a party. That is, there are three primary things you need to do:
1. Choose and communicate the theme. This is not a “Let’s all get together and hang out aimlessly” kind of get-together. No, this is a theme party. Whether for your workplace in general or a specific meeting, you as a leader need to set clear strategic objectives and ground rules for participants so everyone is pulling in the same direction.
For example, if you’re focusing on innovation, state that up front. Identify the kinds of new ideas you’re looking for, but also let employees know that no suggestion is too big or too small. Say it and repeat it: Everyone plays a role in the organization’s success and future.
2. Send out the invites. Just as you would for a party, send an invitation to everyone. This might sound strange because, in a way, you “invited” every employee simply by hiring them. Nonetheless, some personality types need regular encouragement to really open up and share.
Many employees struggle with feeling a lack of psychological safety at work. It can arise from either negative aspects of organizational culture or personal issues of their own (or both). Participation takes practice. The more they’re encouraged—that is, invited—to participate in meetings or other types of discussions, the more their comfort levels will grow. Just be sure that when they do share, they receive positive recognition for it.
3. Be a convivial host. Just about everything you do as a host of a party you should do as a leader looking to strengthen the psychological safety of your workplace. Set the tone with your actions and attitudes. Welcome everyone to meetings or other discussions. Identify participants by name as much as possible.
As the saying goes, “Accentuate the positive.” For example, let’s say someone makes a bold suggestion in a meeting that immediately draws skepticism and counterarguments. Take it upon yourself to draw out some constructive aspects of the idea—even if it’s saying something like, “Although that specifically probably won’t work, it does help us narrow our focus.”
And, like any good host, if you identify someone intent on disrupting the proceedings in a negative or, worse yet, destructive way, move quickly to pull that person aside and neutralize the situation.
Failure is okay.
Above all, perhaps the most important facet of a psychologically safe workplace is the destigmatization of failure. Ultimately, as a leader, make it your job to help employees know and feel that failure is okay as long as they embrace their mistakes as learning opportunities and push forward with courage and passion toward the next great idea.
Lynda Silsbee is Founder and President of the Alliance for Leadership Acceleration. She has spent more than 30 years creating and leading high performance teams. Along with the other LEAP Certified Coaches, she reports that helping managers make the LEAP to leader is one of the most fulfilling aspects of her work.