Empathy vs Expectations : Striking the Right Balance as a Leader

In the past, leaders instilled a certain amount of fear to churn more work out of people with focus being on profits at any cost. Pushing employees to work led to declining morale and motivation levels. However, the post- pandemic phase altered the way we work, by offering more flexibility on job. With Covid-19 having imposed several stressors the significance of empathy at work has cropped up and sticking to old ways may do more harm than good.

Empathy is the ability to understand other’s feelings by putting yourself in their place and seeing things from their perspective. Empathy permeates a conducive environment and creates a more engaged workforce, one that is willing to put more energy into their work. However, as a leader one must set boundaries and not overrun on empathy.

The essence of the article ‘Finding the right balance of empathy as a leader‘ struck me as this is so relevant in the present scenario. I would like to share with fellow leaders’ the ways we can maintain an ideal balance between empathy and expectations - where people are understood but expectations are also crystal clear.

Go hard on the issue, soft on the person

  • Serious discussions when carried out on an empathetic note makes the listener becomes more receptive to accepting his/her shortcomings. When approaching tough conversations such a bad behavior redressal, first emphasize you genuinely care and seek an improvement, then shrewdly shift focus on what’s not right and what’s expected - be it a behavioral change or working method.
  • Be transparent in your speaking and employ a parental approach when calling attention on wrongdoings. At times, you may need to sensitize yourself to their heightened reactions by stepping into their shoes and assure support wherever required.

Set clear expectations

  • Clarity on work expectations is the key for enhanced employer-employee relationships. As a leader, you need to explicitly articulate what’s expected of employees and ensure it’s clearly understood. After a timeframe is assigned, the employee is accountable to meet his/her obligations.
  • Be mindful to give employees a certain amount of leeway to fulfill set expectations in their own way, while offering the requisite support structure to enable timely execution.

Prioritize accountability

  • Once expectations are clear, both parties are accountable to realize their commitments. If you see expectations are consistently not being met, as a leader thoughtfully figure out the reasons why and offer desired support to steer a behavioral change.
  • Despite sincere guidance and provision of sufficient time, if the employee is not putting efforts to reciprocate a turnaround, then tolerating such underperformance would set a bad example for other members. This is a moment of reality when a soft leader needs to take hard decisions and let go off the employee in best interest.

I firmly believe when leaders display compassion and commitment, employees bring more motivation to work and thrive in an atmosphere where support is extended. Contrarily to maintain this positive culture and instill confidence in the system, people also need to know that bad behaviors will not be entertained.

Are there instances when you have been tough on work expectations, yet soft on your people? I am keen to know.